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OPINION: Nix investigation, Sibella prosecution reveal another of Las Vegas’ dirty little secrets

John L. Smith
John L. Smith
Opinion
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The MGM Grand hotel and casino sign

He’s getting whacked with unflattering headlines and has been bounced from the gaming industry that has made him wealthy, but I imagine ousted casino executive and diehard Vegas guy Scott Sibella is feeling a sense of relief these days.

Barring some surprises, the worst of his troubles may be over. Officially, he faces up to five years in prison for failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports. But after carving out a favorable plea agreement this week in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in the ongoing investigation of the Wayne Nix illegal bookmaking network, Sibella will likely walk away from this scandal unemployed, but relatively unscathed.

It’s the other tailored swells who inhabit the executive offices at MGM Resorts International on the Strip — and for that matter at regulated casinos throughout Las Vegas and far beyond — who might have trouble sleeping in the months to come. There but for the neon graces, they might have found their own names on the front page and their own high-flying careers crashing in ignominy.

On the surface, the investigation is fairly simple. Nix, the former minor league pitcher-turned-major-league illegal bookmaker, from 2017 to 2020 was a high-rolling gambler and enormous cash customer at MGM. We’re talking about duffle bags, brown paper bags and leather purses full of money. As then-president of MGM Grand Las Vegas, Sibella and two unnamed casino hosts were aware Nix ran a lucrative illegal bookmaking operation and, at one point, allowed him to recruit sports betting customers on the property. But they failed to report the obvious: that a guy entering a casino with duffle bags of cash qualifies as suspicious activity.

According to the signed statement of facts in the government’s non-prosecution agreement with MGM Grand Hotel LLC, “Not only did Sibella and the two hosts continue to allow Nix to present illicit proceeds to the casino and/or affiliate properties, but they would provide Nix complimentary benefits at the casino, including meals, room, board, and golf trips with MGM Grand’s high-net-worth customers to solicit new customers for the Nix Gambling Business.” By doing so, Sibella and others made a mockery of federal anti-money laundering regulations and the fact that, as a major casino operation, MGM had a duty to know its customers.

Another point that ought to give some casino executives pause: “Nix would also solicit new customers for the Nix Gambling Business from marketing hosts at the casinos he frequented. Nix at various times offered casino hosts a commission or gratuity for referring casino customers to Nix and the Nix Gambling Business.”

After pleading guilty this past week, Sibella released a statement through defense attorneys John Spilotro and Jeffrey Rutherford, in which he expressed a sense of relief that the investigation had reached its conclusion. “I take full responsibility for my actions and inactions, but I must make it clear I took no action for my personal benefit or inurement.”

In an interview with the government last year, Sibella admitted that he knew Nix was a major illegal bookmaker, but his gambling across MGM’s tables made him an extremely valuable customer. “I didn’t ask, I didn’t want to know I guess because he wasn’t doing anything to cheat the casino,” Sibella said.

But, of course, the company certainly benefited from the Nix spending spree with illicit cash, which is why the federal prosecution team led by First Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph McNally and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Mitchell crafted a withering Non-Prosecution Agreement with MGM Grand and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas that called for $7.45 million in fines to resolve a money laundering investigation linked to the Nix scandal. The company that makes much of the importance of integrity obviously has some work to do. As part of its settlement with the government, it has agreed to undergo an external review and enhance its anti-money laundering compliance program.

But before all this gets fogged and forgotten, keep in mind that MGM and Cosmopolitan admitted that they enabled Nix to launder millions in illicit funds and failed to file the standard suspicious activity documents. They knew their customer, and they liked his money.

Nix pleaded guilty in April 2022 to a single count of conspiracy to operate an illegal gambling business and one count of signing off on a false tax return. He has been cooperating with agents from IRS Criminal Investigation and Homeland Security Investigation in their ongoing probe. Nix is scheduled to be sentenced March 6 in Los Angeles.

Before his precipitous fall, the homegrown Sibella was considered a rising star in the casino business. That all began to change after he helped open the $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas on the Strip. He was fired in September 2023 from his position as Resorts World president for violating company policy following an investigation of suspect ownership of multiple subcontracted businesses inside the resort. By then, however, his association with Nix was already surfacing. Sibella is scheduled to be sentenced May 8.

But let’s not kid ourselves.

As one longtime Las Vegas legal observer says, “You can’t swing a cat in a casino and not hit a bookmaker.” And only small children and simple-minded reporters imagine casinos don’t know who their players are.

Another attorney, who counts casino corporations among his clients, says, “Now a lot of people have to be very nervous. They’re worried about their gaming licenses.”

It makes some people wonder what top MGM executives knew and when they knew it about one of their biggest cash customers. 

Meanwhile, Scott Sibella is taking his lumps and deserves them. But his sin was hardly unique.

So, I wonder who is losing sleep these days in Las Vegas.

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.

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