Justice for sale? Billionaire’s plea deal prompts outrage

By: - August 1, 2019 4:11 pm

Henry Nicholas. (Photo courtesy David Chesnoff).

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson is declining to discuss a plea deal that will allow billionaire Henry Nicholas to skate on felony drug trafficking charges and avoid prison, prompting outrage from lawmakers, civil libertarians, and on social media.

“This is disgusting,” Assemblyman William McCurdy tweeted Wednesday about the plea deal. McCurdy is also chair of the Nevada Democratic Party.

Nicholas and his friend, Ashley Fargo, were arrested last August in a Las Vegas hotel room where police found nearly 96 grams of methamphetamine, 4.24 grams of heroin, 15.13 grams of cocaine, and 17.1 grams of psilocin, a psychedelic, according to the complaint.

“DA Wolfson will not be commenting on this case until the defendants actually enter their pleas in District Court,” Wolfson’s assistant, Audrie Locke, told the Current.  

Nicholas and Fargo are expected to enter Alford pleas August 26 on a single count of possession of a controlled substance.  An Alford plea is a guilty plea by a defendant who asserts his innocence but acknowledges evidence exists that would likely lead to conviction.  

The case has been assigned to newly-appointed Clark County Judge Jacqueline Bluth, who was a chief deputy district attorney in Wolfson’s office until Gov. Steve Sisolak appointed her to the bench in March. 

Nevada law gives judges the discretion to reject plea agreements. 

“By no stretch of the imagination would anyone consider Dr. Nicholas or Ms. Fargo to be traffickers distributing drugs into the community,” their attorneys David Chesnoff and David Brown said in a statement. “This positive agreement allows them to help people grappling with addiction by providing substantial financial support to programs in Clark County for treatment and rehabilitation, which have been shown to be an effective tool for combating addiction.”

Rather than attend drug court, which requires intensive treatment and drug testing, the deal calls for Nicholas and Fargo to participate in two drug counseling sessions a month, perform 250 hours of community service during the course of a year, and pay $500,000 each to a yet undetermined drug treatment facility in Las Vegas.  

Failure to comply will result in a finding of guilt on one count of possession, a probationary charge, meaning the two will avoid prison regardless of their compliance.  

“They are paying their way out of jail,” said one courthouse insider who asked not to be named. 

Nicholas is the founder and primary funder of Marsy’s Law,  a victim rights ballot measure named for his sister, who was a murder victim.  Nevada voters overwhelmingly passed Marsy’s Law last November.  

Wolfson appeared in campaign ads supporting Marsy’s Law but says his support did not compromise his independence in the case against Nicholas because the ads were produced prior to Nicholas’ arrest. 

R&R Partners served as the lobbyist for Marsy’s Law during the 2019 legislative session.

“We work with their government affairs people,” Billy Vassiliadis of R&R Partners told the Current. “We had no contact with him (Nicholas).” 

Vassiliadis says Nicholas’ legal problems could be an albatross as advocates seek to pass the ballot measure nationwide.  

“I suppose it could be made to look that way, but it’s not about one person.  If it is, it’s about victims like Marsy,” Vassiliadis said. 

Vassiliadis, a public relations guru, says it’s unlikely the public makes any connection between Nicholas and Marsy’s Law. 

“It’s not like Bloomberg used a gun,” Vassiliadis said, referring to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control activist.

“What it shows is that we have two systems of justice in our state,” McCurdy told the Current on Thursday. “We have a system for those who have wealth and one for those who do not.  As long as we have two tiers of the criminal justice system, people will never get fair and equal treatment under the law. If you look at the amount he was caught with that should be a trafficking case.”

The amount of drugs Nicholas and Fargo allegedly possessed constitutes a trafficking crime under an amendment supported by the Nevada District Attorneys Association to a criminal justice reform measure passed by the Legislature this year. 

Assembly Bill 236 says a person possessing “100 grams or more, but less than 400 grams, is guilty of low level trafficking and shall be punished for a category B felony by imprisonment in the state prison for a minimum term of not less than 2 years and a maximum term of not more than 20 years and a fine of $100,000.” 

“We wanted to increase those thresholds to allow higher weights to carry lesser penalties, but law enforcement and the District Attorneys wanted stricter penalties for smaller amounts of narcotics,” Assemblyman Howard Watts said in an interview.

“During the last session, on a variety of criminal justice reform bills, we saw District Attorneys, not just from Clark County but from Washoe and the statewide District Attorneys Association consistently ask for more discretion and power in the process and for their offices to preserve the power they already have in filing charges, having options for leniency and for referrals to specialty courts,” says Watts.  “This case kind of illustrates when the discretion and leniency is applied in a regressive and inequitable manner.”  

“The Henry Nicholas’ plea deal is what is wrong with the criminal justice system. How many of the people passing through the Clark County Detention Center will get the same plea offer?” ACLU Nevada Executive Director Tod Story asked rhetorically.  “If money buys privileges and opportunities not available to those without it, then justice is not blind or fair, and our system must be reformed.”

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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.