Harry Reid battled the Mob in Nevada before he fought for Nevada in Washington

Harry Reid battled the Mob in Nevada before he fought for Nevada in Washington

The senator, whose career included an action-packed stint on the Nevada Gaming Commission during the ‘Casino’ era, dies at 82

Harry Reid, former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission who later became the U.S. Senate’s Democratic majority leader, died Tuesday at age 82.

In 1974, Nevada Lieutenant Governor Harry Reid decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Reid, a Democrat, would face former Nevada Governor Paul Laxalt, a Republican, for the seat being vacated by longtime Senator Alan Bible. In the wake of Watergate, which left the Republicans in turmoil, the odds looked good for Reid. But he lost the race by 600 votes.

Reid served on the Gaming Commission during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when state regulators and federal prosecutors were trying to drive the Mob out of Las Vegas. Courtesy of Las Vegas Review-Journal

Stung by the defeat, Reid jumped into the race for Las Vegas mayor the following year. He lost that election too. “I woke the day after the mayoral election a 35-year-old has-been,” Reid wrote in his memoir, The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington. “I assumed I was finished with political office.”

But Nevada Governor Mike O’Callaghan, who had known and mentored Reid since he was a teenager, threw him a lifeline: an appointment to the chairmanship of the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1977. Reid was excited about the opportunity, but he really didn’t know what he was getting into.

“I was completely naïve about the inner workings of Las Vegas casinos,” Reid recalled. “I don’t gamble, never have.”

Not only was Reid naïve about how casinos operated, but he didn’t understand the grip the Mob still had on many casinos. He described his experiences serving on the Gaming Commission as “an intense, surreal time when it sometimes felt as if I’d wandered into some kind of terrible funhouse.”

Reid wasn’t on the Gaming Commission long before someone tried to bribe him. Reid ultimately called the FBI, which set up a sting operation. The three men trying to buy Reid’s vote – Jack Gordon, Sol Sayegh and Joe Daly – were caught on videotape delivering $12,000 in cash to Reid. Gordon and Daly were convicted and sent to prison. The case against Sayegh never went to trial.

There was never a dull moment during Reid’s tenure on the Gaming Commission, which occurred during the most tumultuous period in the history of Nevada casino regulation — the period depicted in the 1995 movie Casino when state regulators and federal prosecutors pushed hard to drive the Mob out of Las Vegas.

When the FBI bugged the conversations of Joe Agosto, entertainment director at the Tropicana Hotel, they heard the mobster telling his Kansas City bosses that he had a Nevada gaming regulator in his pocket. Agosto used coded language to describe this person, calling him “Mister Clean” or “Cleanface.” The FBI suspected that Reid was Agosto’s “Cleanface.”

Nevada Governor Mike O’Callaghan appointed Reid to chair the Nevada Gaming Commission, a move that resurrected Reid’s public service career after he lost a couple of election races.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board hired independent investigators to look into Agosto’s claims. They examined every financial transaction of more than $250 that Reid was involved in over the previous two years. He took a polygraph test. The investigators interviewed dozens of people. “Every rock they saw, they picked up and turned it over, twice,” Reid remembered. In 1980, the results of the investigation cleared Reid of any wrongdoing.

Reid was involved with putting both Chicago Outfit mobster Tony Spilotro and associate Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal in the Black Book, Nevada’s list of individuals excluded from stepping foot in Nevada casinos. A verbal confrontation between Rosenthal and Reid after a Gaming Commission meeting later was re-created in Casino, with Robert De Niro playing Rosenthal and Dick Smothers playing Reid.

All during this time, Reid received an array of death threats that put him and his family in jeopardy. The scariest moment came when his wife, Landra, was driving the family’s Oldsmobile station wagon and it wasn’t running right. She lifted the car’s hood and discovered a wire attached to a spark plug that ran to somewhere out of sight. Opening the gas tank, she found the same wire. She ran into the house and called her husband. “Don’t start your car!” she told him.

“The bomb squad arrived to examine the station wagon,” Reid recalled. “Apparently, the gas tank hadn’t detonated because the tip of the spark plug had broken off.”

After that incident, Reid and his wife started their vehicles using remote control devices, and a patrol car was stationed outside their house each night. Reid began carrying a gun for the first time in his life. The terror of that close call for Reid’s family haunted him for years afterward. “What my wife and children endured during my time on the Gaming Commission has stayed with me through all these years and through all the places I’ve lived since,” Reid said in his memoir.

Dick Smothers played a character patterned after Reid in the Martin Scorsese movie Casino.

The place where Reid spent much of the next three decades was Washington, D.C., where he rose through the congressional ranks to become Senator majority leader. He retired from public office in 2016.

Reid’s service on the Nevada Gaming Commission was remembered fondly by Jeff Silver, who served on the state’s Gaming Control Board at the same time. Today, Silver is a private attorney and chairman of The Mob Museum’s Board of Directors.

“I was very fortunate to have worked with this remarkable man during his tenure on the Nevada Gaming Commission,” Silver said. “He was extremely bright, and was always willing to listen to opposing viewpoints, good preparation for the U.S. Senate.

“Obviously, it took great skills for a gentleman from a small state (one that had not gained universal acceptance from sister states) to have risen to such prominence. Most importantly, he was a devoted family man who deeply loved his wife, children and grandchildren. As busy as he was, he took the time to greet fellow Nevadans in the Capitol and was most generous in always making me feel welcome. He is and was Nevada’s senior statesman, and agree with his politics or not, you had to respect his stature and accomplishments.”

Part of The Mob Museum’s Reel History: Video Archive

Reid died on Tuesday, December 28, at his home in Henderson, Nevada. He is survived by his wife, Landra, his children Rory, Lana, Leif, Josh and Key, 19 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.