The lights of the Strip weren’t dimmed last week in honor of the passing of FBI man Joseph Yablonsky, who died recently at age 90. I think the Boulevard’s corporate casino kings missed a bet.
Why show such respect to Yablonsky, the highly controversial former Special Agent in Charge of the Las Vegas FBI office? Because without his bullheaded leadership and the efforts of a small group of agents, cops and federal prosecutors, the gaming industry might have slipped into a scandal that not even its most zealous defenders could explain away.
Cigar-chomping and occasionally foul-mouthed, Yablonsky was a headline-grabber and anything but the typical buttoned-down FBI man. He was a Jew in a Bureau still buffeted by anti-Semitism. As the self-described “King of Sting,” he wasn’t always a sympathetic character. In many ways he was his own worst enemy during his tumultuous tenure as the Bureau’s cleanup man at a time the Las Vegas office was considered largely co-opted by the casino crowd.
From 1980 to 1983, Yablonsky’s FBI office pegged the state’s political Richter scale. Operation Yobo, a comically misspelled tribute to the boss, was an undercover sting that took out sticky-fingered members of the Clark County Commission, state Senate and North Las Vegas City Council. Yablonsky’s agents also hounded into submission U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne with the help of cooperation from brothel boss Joe Conforte in a case that eventually led to the judge’s conviction on tax charges and impeachment.
In tandem with Metro’s Intelligence Bureau, then led by the late Kent Clifford, the FBI made life miserable for Tony Spilotro and his crew. When investigators turned Spilotro’s boyhood pal and fellow killer Frank Cullotta as a cooperating witness, the Outfit’s days were numbered in Las Vegas.
He was vilified for being leery of much of the local police force, but why wouldn’t he? Some were on Spilotro’s pad. Outfit allies littered the local court system and casino racket, where even the industry’s squares were wise enough not to challenge the Little Guy.
One side-effect of Yablonsky’s war in Vegas: His efforts helped make noted mob attorney Oscar Goodman a legend. Maybe Oscar should send the family flowers.
By the time Yablonsky retired in 1983, Las Vegas would never be the same. Some locals never forgave him for that. More than a decade after his departure from Southern Nevada, longtime Vegas insiders still cursed when his name was mentioned.
Perhaps his greatest offense in a town with a king-sized chip on its shoulder was painting Las Vegas with a broad brush by calling it a hoodlum paradise. He wasn’t all wrong: many of those most outraged had no qualms rubbing elbows with organized crime-connected locals, they just didn’t like being called out for it. But when you start your tenure by publicly stating you want to “plant the American flag” in a place, suffice to say you’ve blown the first date.
He seriously underestimated the power and tenacity of Las Vegas Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun, whose newspaper locked onto him like a pitbull and portrayed him as a rule-breaking enemy of the state. Yablonsky made reporters’ jobs easier by unnecessarily popping off and immediately questioning the motivation of any criticism. When he was reprimanded for accepting comped meals on the Strip and committing other civil service ethics violations, he never heard the end of it.
Yablonsky made plenty of powerful enemies, not the least of whom was then-U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, who worked overtime to neutralize him and to rein-in the federal strike force probing the casino industry and the state’s political hierarchy. Between Greenspun’s broadsides and Laxalt’s lobbying in Washington, Yablonsky took a beating.
Through the years, several writers tried to pen his biography. I was one. The process was a marathon and a misery. In the end, with the manuscript in final edit, Yablonsky demanded it be pulled from publication. His reason?
The publisher wouldn’t allow him to be harder on Hank Greenspun, who by that time had been dead more than a decade.
In the end, you could say the House beat Yablonsky despite his many successful cases. Obsessed with Greenspun’s relentless criticism and the community’s laissez faire ethical standards, he grumbled into retirement a pathologically bitter man.
Yablonsky and his charming wife Wilma lived comfortably in Florida, and I hope they had many good days. But I’d bet not a single one passed that didn’t find Joe ruminating about Las Vegas and how it had wronged him.
For as much as his formidable and unforgiving enemies would never admit it, Yablonsky helped make Las Vegas what it is today.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith