#MeToo on ice in Nevada casinos

By: - November 20, 2018 5:03 am

Culinary workers at a Gaming Control Board hearing on sexual harassment in September. Photo: Jeniffer Solis

UPDATED with comment from Governor Brian Sandoval

It’s not often a gaming executive takes on industry regulators, but Caesars Entertainment executive Jan Jones Blackhurst, who is chairwoman of the Nevada Resort Association, isn’t mincing words about the failure of the Nevada Gaming Commission to address sexual harassment in the state’s hotels and casinos.  

helpfully explains what Nevada sells
Jan Jones Blackhurst, Caesars.com

“I’m truly disappointed that the Gaming Commission, after all the work the Chairwoman, the Board and industry have done to gain consensus, felt its good judgment should take precedent,” Jones said in an interview with the Current.

“I do not believe there are any reasons for a delay and I am hopeful one of the members will put it on the agenda,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement to the Current. 

Nevada’s gaming regulatory scheme is bifurcated.  The three-member Gaming Control Board (GCB), chaired by former State Senator Becky Harris, makes recommendations and is charged with regulatory functions.  The five-member Gaming Commission, chaired by Dr. Tony Alamo, establishes policy.

In March, a month after the Wall Street Journal made long-reported but largely ignored stories of Steve Wynn’s alleged pattern of sexual intimidation too awkward for casino regulators to sweep under the carpet any longer, Harris, the first woman to chair the GCB, put licensees on notice.  

“Sexual harassment continues to be one of the most frequent complaints raised in the workplace,” the newly-appointed chairwoman wrote in a memo to all licensees.

Harris went on to invoke Regulation Five, the “morals clause” of state gaming regulation — which states any act deemed “inimical to the public health, safety morals, good order and general welfare of the people of the State of Nevada, or that would reflect or tend to reflect discredit upon the State of Nevada or the gaming industry” may be grounds for action against the licensee.  

Harris included a proposed checklist of items to be completed by licensees on an annual basis, to ensure compliance.

Public workshops followed. The final version of the proposed regulation requires gaming licensees provide regulators with the procedures available to employees to report sexual harassment, the company’s process for investigating, and the potential consequences to offenders. 

Resorts would also have to report to regulators the number of sexual harassment complaints filed each year, and ensure workers know their options for filing complaints. 

Now, eight months later and in the wake of a national uprising over sexual harassment, the five-member Nevada Gaming Commission, which includes two women appointed by Governor Brian Sandoval, has yet to take action on the Board’s proposed regulation.

Gaming Commission chairman Tony Alamo stated last week for the second time that he wants to wait until the state completes its investigation of Wynn, who gave up his stake in his Las Vegas hotels. Commissioners backed Alamo. 

The measure could be further delayed because Wynn is suing his former company and Massachusetts regulators to keep the contents of that state’s investigation private. 

“The Chairman has been consistent,” said Virginia Valentine, President of the Nevada Resort Association, the trade organization representing Nevada casino hotels.  

Alamo failed to return numerous calls and emails asking why regulations couldn’t be amended should the Wynn investigation reveal holes in the state’s rules.    

The Commission’s delay “seems to be a reasonable course of action if one believes that the Wynn investigation would somehow bring to light information that would have changed the recommendation of the GCB,” says UNLV Political Science professor Rebecca Gill, who directs the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada. “I’m not convinced this is the case, nor am I aware of any arguments put forward to support the idea that the investigation would uncover something that would materially change things.” 

Harris declined to say whether Alamo’s argument has merit.

I am interested in the commission dealing with them,” she said of the proposed regulations.  

Sources say some hotel operators contend the regulations are redundant and unnecessary, claiming workers are already protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Jones Blackhurst disagrees.

“The gaming industry is and always has been different,” she says. “We sell sex, liquor and self-indulgence and people behave badly.  Employees are not going to file suits with the EEOC because they’re afraid they’d lose their jobs. This was a process that gave protection to women who were largely afraid.”  

From 2005 to 2015, the nation’s hotel and restaurant workers filed at least 5,000 sexual harassment complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the most in any industry.

Like Alamo, commissioners John Moran Jr., Philip Pro and Sandra Morgan, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Current did successfully contact Commissioner Deborah Fuetsch. “I think you had better talk with Dr. Alamo about that,” Fuetsch said.

Is the Gaming Commission hoping the call for regulations will diminish with the passage of time?

Sources suggested the commission’s reticence is the result of “regulatory capture,” the failure of government that occurs when regulators are beholden to the special interests of the regulated, rather than to the public.

How can gaming commissioners, who are appointed, be held accountable?

“You call it out,” says Gill. “At least here in Nevada we may have learned a lesson recently about how unwilling we are as a state to tolerate this. There’s potential that significant public pressure would be able to move some of these folks.”

“I’m suspicious about any effort to delay and what could be actionable. We know enough about the dynamics and the level of protections Wynn had,” says Gill.  “I’m not sure these people realize what’s at stake for the people who work in this environment. People who don’t experience harassment firsthand underestimate the effect it has on the workplace.”

“I would commend Becky Harris and the rest of the Control Board.  Given the legal constraints they are operating in I think [the proposed regulation] is a bold statement,” says Gill.  “But it still doesn’t provide another channel where people can complain. Our legal structure is weak because the first avenue you can pursue is through the company, which has a vested interested in protecting itself from liability.  It’s easy to see why, even with these stricter rules you’d end up with under-reporting.”

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.