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Talking about his role as Don Corleone in The Godfather, Marlon Brando compared the "capo de tutti capo" to the chairman of General Motors. Business, Brando said, was business, and the real gangsters resided in the boardroom.
David Johnston, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, understands the analogy. Johnston, who served as the newspaper's Atlantic City bureau chief from 1988 until earlier this year, has written a book examining how corporate America has wrested control of the legal gambling industry from unsavory, mob-connected interests. He describes how, despite promises of intense regulation and advertising campaigns designed to market gaming as an all-American pastime, the new masters of the casinos--Hilton Hotels, the former Holiday Inn corporation, Donald Trump--still don't play by the rules.
Johnston's book surveys the history of gambling in America, with an emphasis on the excesses and shady business deals of "legitimate" business interests involved with casino gambling. He alleges that gambling regulators in New Jersey and Nevada routinely look the other way at abuses in casinos and that corporate owners are subjected to less scrutiny than the dealers, hostesses and waiters who work the casino floors. Johnston's book is filled with colorful characters such as Akio Kashiwagi, a mysterious Japanese businessman who wagered $14 million an hour for days on end until he was butchered with a samurai sword.
One of the less spectacular villains of Temples of Chance, which will be published by Doubleday later this month, is Phoenix attorney and businessman Richard Snell, now the president and CEO of Pinnacle West (the holding company of Arizona Public Service Company). Johnston alleges that Snell, as chairman of the Phoenix-based Ramada Inn motel chain, tried to weasel out of a deal to buy the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas. According to Johnston, Snell's ruthlessness backfired, eventually costing Ramada shareholders $35 million. At the same time, a chain of events set off by Ramada's refusal to live up to its agreement to purchase reduced the Tropicana's principal owner, an eccentric old woman named Mitzi Briggs, to a pauper.
Johnston, who was interviewed while in Phoenix to promote his book, contends that the fantastic profit potential of casinos caused Ramada to leap into the gambling industry despite a lack of expertise. He says Bill Isbell, the son of Ramada founder Marion Isbell, was so eager to get into the casino business he made several terrible deals. Snell, who took over the company when the younger Isbell was forced out, was left to cope with what Johnston says are two poorly managed, badly located casinos.
But even though Johnston claims Ramada never had much success with its casinos, the promise of gambling was so seductive that Snell eventually sold off all the chain's motels and created a new company, composed only of three casinos: the Tropicana, TropWorld in Atlantic City and the Ramada Express in Laughlin. Johnston says the new company, Aztar, has also been a disaster, noting that its stock plunged from $14 a share to around $4 a share within a few months of the company's creation. Johnston says Snell told him things were so bad at Aztar that employees began referring to the company as Ishtar, a reference to the flop movie. Within months after the creation of Aztar, Snell moved on, replacing Keith Turley as president and CEO of Pinnacle West Capital Corporation.
Johnston says that he interviewed Snell several times for his book, and that he denies any legal or moral wrongdoing in connection with the Briggs case. (Joe Cole, a spokesman for Aztar, says his company has no comment on Johnston's book. Paul Reynolds, a spokesman for Pinnacle West and Snell, says neither Snell nor anyone at Pinnacle West had had a chance to read Johnston's book. "I don't know if we'll be able to comment even after we look at it," Reynolds says. "I just got a copy of it.)
According to Johnston, Briggs was an easy mark who might have eventually ended up broke even if Ramada hadn't helped her along. A few years after buying the Tropicana in 1975, she was compelled to sell her interest when the FBI discovered that the Kansas City mob was skimming off her profits.
"She was an eccentric woman who looks like Norman Rockwell's ideal grandmother," Johnston says. "Everyone I know in law enforcement says Mitzi Briggs had no notion of what was going on. She was simply an innocent getting eaten up by the sharks."
Four times married and divorced, Briggs had once written and self-published a book, Naked Before Thee, that detailed her intimate, extremely personal relationship with the Lord. In it, she described the intensity of her sex life with God. A decade before she sold the Tropicana to Ramada, she was briefly committed to a mental institution after she donated $5.5 million to the Catholic Church and gave away $600,000 worth of real estate to a group purporting to be militant Native Americans with a plan to blow the faces off Mount Rushmore.
Even though Briggs was compelled to sell out, Ramada was so eager to buy the Tropicana, it agreed to terms it would later find onerous. Instead of agreeing on a fixed price, Ramada agreed to a complex formula based on the casino's profits over an 18-month period.