Sex sells. Who’s minding the store?
“The idea is there’s a lot of money in a very, very small space. The criminals know it. That’s why they flock to the city. Because of it you see a lot of people coming here and trafficking in women. We also have a slogan here – “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – which I don’t particularly like because it gives people the idea you can come here, do whatever you want and there’s no mess to clean up.” – Former Metro Vice Detective Chris Baughman, Tricked, a documentary
In April of 2017, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo acknowledged the Metropolitan Police Department had made sweeping changes to its vice department in the wake of an FBI investigation and promised his cooperation in a probe that has now stretched into its fourth year. Court records reveal that just months later, Metro took steps to suppress allegedly incriminating internal police documents that could expose police wrongdoing.
Invoices obtained by the Current reveal Metro has paid private attorneys more than $30,000 thus far to keep police records out of court and prevent current and even former police from testifying in a case that defense attorneys Janiece Marshall and Michael Cristalli wrote in a legal motion exposes “an unsavory side that LVMPD would prefer not be exposed…”
Is that a worthy expenditure of taxpayer money?
Publicly, Lombardo has been silent on the probe since he acknowledged the FBI investigation to KLAS-TV’s George Knapp. He’s refused to answer questions submitted by the Current, as has District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who still employs Liz Mercer, a prosecutor alleged to have engaged in witness tampering, according to witness testimony. Mercer’s attorney, Pete Christiansen Jr., declined an interview with the Current on behalf of his client.
Wolfson won’t say whether he’s conducting his own investigation nor will he disclose whether he’s communicated with the Justice Department regarding the alleged wrongdoing by Metro detectives and Mercer.
Members of Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Board, who hold the department’s purse strings, are also silent regarding the investigation into police corruption.
A spokesman for Board member and Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who is running for governor, told the Current that “he’s on Fiscal Affairs, not Internal Affairs.”
Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa claimed Sisolak is unaware of the investigation and said Fiscal Affairs “has no oversight whatsoever over Metro’s policies and practices. That is entirely under the purview of the Sheriff, who is a separate elected official accountable to the citizens. Similarly, the policies and practices of the DA’s office are set by the elected District Attorney.”
Sisolak, who stepped up at a police news conference days after the Las Vegas Strip shooting massacre to do nothing more than christen the event “1 October,” has not shied away from inserting himself into the domain of other elected officials in the past.
In 2012 the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that a Sisolak-led effort to have justices of the peace preside over coroner’s inquests exceeded the duties of the office.
In 2013 Sisolak dictated how then-Metro Sheriff Doug Gillespie should spend tax revenue if he wanted the commissioner’s support for the measure.
Also in 2013, Sisolak spearheaded an effort to eliminate the elected office of Clark County Constable.
Sisolak isn’t the only member of Fiscal Affairs who is avoiding discussion of allegations of police and prosecutor misconduct.
His County Commission colleague Larry Brown did not return calls, nor did City of Las Vegas council members Steve Seroka and Stavros Anthony, who also serve on Fiscal Affairs.
The board also includes a representative of the public at large, which generally means the gaming industry. Cosmopolitan executive Bill McBeath currently represents the public. A gaming executive has held that seat for 19 of the past 37 years. For 13 of the 18 years not held by gaming, the seat was filled by Kenny Guinn, who had close ties to the industry. McBeath declined to return numerous calls.
Law enforcement enjoys a close relationship with the gaming industry, which often provides employment to former police. Former FBI agent George Togliatti is vice president at MGM Resorts International. Former Nevada Highway Patrol commander Kevin Tice is Director of Security at Mandalay Bay. Former Metro Sheriffs Jerry Keller and Bill Young went from the police department to lucrative casino industry jobs as have countless others, including retired captain Todd Fasulo, now at Wynn Las Vegas and former vice squad Lt. Karen Hughes, who worked briefly for MGM.
Hughes is now out of the country and out of the reach of defense attorneys representing a pimp who says he was wrongly put away for life by Hughes’ band of vice cops, the same cops Metro has been paying lawyers to keep off the witness stand in the post-conviction re-trial of Ocean Fleming.
A convenient plea deal?
Life behind bars. That’s what convicted pimp Ocean Fleming faced before allegations of police and prosecutor misconduct gave Fleming the chance of walking out of prison. On Tuesday, Fleming could find himself a free man, or close to it.
Prostitutes and others who alleged Fleming kidnapped, choked or otherwise abused the women who worked for him are recanting the testimony that landed him behind bars for life in 2012. The witnesses claim they were manipulated, trained and coerced into lying under oath by assistant district attorney Mercer and by then-Metro vice detectives Al Beas and Christopher Baughman, men with whom, the witnesses swear in affidavits, they were having sex.
Baughman, now married to Mercer and no longer working for Metro, is alleged in court documents to have had sexual relationships with prostitutes working for pimps he allegedly protected. Baughman’s attorney, William Brown, did not respond to phone calls from the Current.
Jessica Gruda, the key witness in Fleming’s 2012 conviction, testified Baughman and Beas tipped her off to “which casino properties to avoid prostituting at because other police officers would be conducting prostitution sweeps.”
Sources familiar with the FBI probe confirm the feds are looking into allegations that police accepted protection payments from pimps.
In an affidavit, Gruda said:
From 2011 to 2012, prior to me testifying against Ocean Fleming at trial, I became sexually involved with Detective Al Beas after he expressed interest in me. I was not romantically nor sexually interested in Detective Beas but treated him as one of my paying customers. Detective Beas gave me $400.00 in cash at one point and paid for a rental car for me while we were sexually involved.
Beas remains at Metro but is no longer a vice detective.
Fleming and another convicted felon, Raymond Sharpe, sought new trials as a result of the allegations that the witnesses who put them behind bars were coerced and coached by Mercer and police, including Baughman and Beas. Sharpe’s has not been granted.
District Attorney Wolfson was forced to voluntarily recuse from the cases, given the conflict posed by Mercer. Judge Doug Herndon, a former assistant district attorney, appointed Adam Gill as special prosecutor, despite the defense attorney’s longstanding representation of clients alleged to be involved in the illegal sex trade. Gill did not respond to requests for an interview.
On April 30th, Fleming’s attorney, Janiece Marshall, issued a subpoena for Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Andress Tobiasson.
It’s highly unusual for a judge to be called as a witness.
What testimony Marshall hoped to elicit from Tobiasson remains a mystery. Just days after Tobiasson was added to the witness list, Special Prosecutor Adam Gill notified police to transport Fleming to court for a May 14th hearing, at which Fleming accepted a deal from Gill that would allow him to walk out of prison on time served.
The plea deal assures that Baughman, Beas and Mercer won’t be subjected to questioning, at least for now.
What was Tobiasson prepared to say? Earlier this year Tobiasson told KLAS TV and the Current that Metro vice detectives and the District Attorney ignored her warnings about an underage prostitution and crime ring. Tobiasson says police may have prevented three murders, had they taken action.
Days after Tobiasson appeared on TV, Sheriff Lombardo and DA Wolfson, two elected officials, secretly met with the chief judge of Las Vegas Justice Court in an attempt to have Tobiasson, another elected official, removed from criminal cases. Lombardo and Wolfson refuse to say why they eschewed proper channels, such as a court motion.
‘I think it’s a joke and nobody cares’
Nevada remains the only state in the nation with a legal sex trade.
Given the ubiquity of the illegal trade, have state and local officials thrown up their hands when it comes to drawing a distinction?
And in the #MeToo climate that shuns the notion of women as commodities, has prostitution worn out its welcome, even in Nevada?
State-sanctioned brothels are confined to just a few Nevada counties, but the nuance of the law is often lost on visitors.
Attorney Jason Guinasso says the frequently ignored line between legal and illegal sex trafficking creates a relationship that feeds both beasts.
“Legal prostitution breeds a larger black market,” Guinasso says. “We have promoted the fact that you can come to Nevada and purchase sex. That entices opportunists to come here, especially for events to provide supply.”
Arrest records indicate Guinasso is correct. Nevada, the only state in the nation with legal prostitution in some counties, led the United States with 10.83 prostitution arrests per 10,000 people in 2016, according to FBI crime data. That’s three times as many as the next state, Wyoming, which had 3.10 arrests.
The observation was not lost on early tourism executives, who used prostitution to expand the market. Eventually, Nevada casino owners noted the competition from brothels, which ensured their survival by gaining legal status in 1971.
Today, their coexistence benefits both industries. Legal brothels profit from international tourism marketing campaigns like the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” campaign, while the illegal sex industry profits from the perception that buying sex is legal in Nevada.
A study by Creighton University, paid for by the Nevada-based anti-prostitution organization AwakenReno.org, estimates that at least 5,016 individuals are sold for sex in an average month in Nevada.
Despite the state’s growth in population and tourism, prostitution arrests in Nevada have progressively declined this century, according to FBI statistics — from 4,054 in 2001 to 2,892 in 2016. Nationally, arrests dropped from 80,854 in 2001 to 38,306 in 2016.
Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is running for governor, did not respond to numerous requests for interviews regarding his office’s involvement in prostitution cases. Laxalt, who portrays himself as a warrior against human trafficking and was given additional resources by the Legislature to combat prostitution, has been selective in the cases he’s pursued.
Advocates of prostitution say the profession is empowering and allows women to take advantage of men by trading sex for large amounts of money. The notion of the prostitute as a captive victim is insulting and counter-productive to achieving economic freedom, they say.
But others say there’s nothing empowering about being groomed as a sex slave, forced to turn over your earnings to either a pimp or brothel owner.
Guinasso is behind a referendum to outlaw brothels in Nevada, which he says is the center of a vast west coast network. The effort has already failed in one of two targeted counties.
“Nevada is the hub of the wheel. People are being moved like cattle from Northern California into Northern Nevada, down to Southern Nevada and back to California.”
But what about the value of the prostitution industry to tourism?
“Some people have tried to quantify it,” Guinasso says. “It’s a WAG estimate. A Wild Ass Guess.”
The perception that sex is legally for sale in Nevada’s big cities can be good for business. But efforts to police it can create a public relations nightmare.
Guinasso is advocating that Nevada join places such as Seattle and San Diego which have adopted the Nordic model, a policy that treats prostitutes as victims, providing services including housing.
“Otherwise they’d be homeless,” says Guinasso of the women who turn over their earnings to pimps.
The Nordic model holds pimps and johns accountable, a scheme that would likely land hordes of tourists in Nevada jails.
Guinasso says he’s hopeful to have the support of Nevada’s powerful casino industry.
“A lot of people in gaming would like to see the legal brothels gone,” he says.
An effort in the last legislative session to crack down on so-called “flop houses” drew opposition from the Retail Association of Nevada, the people who make money on all the merchandise purchased by tourists and convention goers drawn to Nevada, in part, by the attraction of the flesh trade.
“Retailers were against it. I was perplexed,” says Guinasso, who hopes for a better reception from the gaming industry.
Guinasso is not alone.
In 2011, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the Nevada Legislature it’s time to have “an adult conversation” about ending prostitution. Reid said legal brothels were hurting the state’s reputation.
Reid later reiterated the sentiment to the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce.
“I believe it has hindered economic development in the state,” Reid said, noting lawmakers wouldn’t act to change the law. “The Legislature, they’re all a bunch of cowards. They were afraid to do anything about it.”
After four years, the Justice Department has so far indicted the bookkeeper of Jamal “Mally Mall” Rashid, the rapper and pimp whose relationship with then-Detective Baughman is said to have originally piqued the FBI’s curiosity.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think anybody is the target of a federal investigation because I don’t think they are ever going to indict anybody,” says a source with ties to the investigation. “I was told the indictments were coming in February, then it was March, then it was May. And now it’s July. I think it’s a joke and nobody cares. It’s unbelievable and disgusting and I can assure you that as we speak, there are girls in high school who are related to judges, or police officers, or firemen, or reporters, or city councilmen, or county commissioners who are probably being groomed and targeted for prostitution.”
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