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Posted by on Mar 13, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 2 comments

Should We Support “Ban the Box” Laws?

 

 

Question #1:  Should ex-convicts be forced to answer questions about their criminal backgrounds when seeking employment?

Question #2:  Do prospective employers have a right to know about the criminal history of applicants?

 

These two questions present an obvious contradiction.  You either support an applicant’s right to privacy.  Or, you support the employer’s right to know who they’re hiring.  You can’t be in favor of both.

Legislation which would prohibit asking questions about criminal histories has been proposed in several states, including here in Nevada.  What’s known as the “Ban the Box” law means making it illegal to ask questions about criminal history on employment applications.  Some of these proposed bans apply only to government-related employment, including states and localities.  Other bans are far more comprehensive and would impact employers hiring workers in both the public and private sectors.

Compelling arguments can be made on both sides of this debate.  That’s what makes this controversial issue so problematic.  There are no easy answers.

See if you agree:

 

THE CASE FOR “BAN THE BOX”

“Ban the Box” supporters point out that ex-convicts have paid their debts to society.  They shouldn’t be stigmatized by prior criminal history, which (when disclosed) makes it far more difficult for them to re-enter society as working citizens.

Fact is, ex-convicts face paralyzing levels of discrimination in virtually all areas of daily life — including housing, finance, child custody, and even in developing personal relationships.  This is especially true for employment, as well, which is often the most important single factor in determining what happens to ex-convicts after they’re released.

Consider the following:  When two applicants are up for the same job, and one is an ex-convict, the applicant with the clean criminal record is almost certain to get selected.  Repeated failure and disappointment at securing steady work means ex-convicts have far fewer options to make a decent living.  Hence, some of them return to their old ways and go back to a life of crime.  That’s not good for them.  It’s also not good for society.

We should all try to empathize with ex-convicts who honestly want to turn their lives around.  I think they deserve our support.  They face enough obstacles already during various stages of rehabilitation without the added hardship of not being able to get a good job.

The consequences of discrimination against ex-convicts isn’t just personal.  Society, at large, is also adversely effected.  If employers screen out ex-convicts based on their pasts, this creates a large group of both unemployed and under-employed, especially among younger men.  Since the United States imprisons far more of its citizens than any nation in the world (many for abstruse drug offenses), the numbers here are quite significant, even reaching into the millions.  It’s also one of many contributing factors towards inner-city squalor and decay, with a devastating impact on minority communities which already suffer disproportional levels of discrimination.

Of course, “Ban the Box” laws will not solve all the problems that ex-convicts face, nor magically the lift the poorest communities out of poverty.  However, this law would help quite a large number of people, many with good intentions who desperately want to turn their lives around and become a productive part of society.

Everyone who applies for a job deserves a fair chance.

 

THE CASE AGAINST “BAN THE BOX”

Employers have rights, too.  Employers are entitled to know exactly who they’re hiring, especially for jobs involving trust and public safety.  Ex-convicts have already demonstrated some degree of personal failure when it comes to issues of trust and public safety.  Prospective employers are entitled to know about those deficiencies.

Opponents of “Ban the Box” laws point out that workplaces are not cross-cultural laboratories for social experimentation.  Employers shouldn’t be forced to take all the risks, nor bear the occasional burden of an ex-criminal who continues committing illegal acts after serving time and being released back into society.

Indeed, if the actions of an ex-convict who committed a terrible crime in the past aren’t known to the employer in advance, there’s a chance that person might do bad things that will harm the company and endanger other employees.

“Ban the Box” laws don’t necessarily restrict hiring practices.  Some ex-convicts who apply for jobs might make such a positive impression that they get hired anyway, and eventually become outstanding employees and good citizens.  However, employers should be able ask questions related to criminal records in advance and conduct background checks to find out this information.

There are already plenty of laws on the books which prohibit many types of discrimination in employment based on age, race, and gender.  Most agree that those are rights which should be protected.  Government has an obligation to make ensure to the best of its ability that all citizens receive fair employment opportunities.

However, once someone commits a crime and gets convicted in a court of law, the same rights to privacy should not apply equally to everyone.  Citizens with clean criminal records are entitled to the presumed advantages of good behavior in future employment over ex-convicts who have made bad decisions in the past.

Employers have a right to know who they may be hiring.

 

So, what’s your opinion?  Should we support “Ban the Box” laws which make it easier for ex-cons to fit back into society?  Or, should employers be allowed to ask questions about the past criminal convictions of applicants?

If you were a state legislator, how would you vote?

 

MY THOUGHTS:

Permit me to offer the following opinions:

(1)  The notion of restricting access to information is very troublesome.  Prohibiting what seems to be perfectly normal questions about an applicant’s background contradicts the fundamentals of honesty and transparency.  However….

(2)  Society would be much better off with “Ban the Box” laws.  Many ex-convicts who otherwise would be summarily rejected for employment would enjoy far greater opportunities.  Accordingly we would all benefit from ex-convicts returning productively to the workforce, since there’s less a chance for recidivism.  That means less crime, less strain on the overworked judicial system, less prisons, and better workers.  It also means more opportunities for ex-convicts living in inner cities, resulting in some measure of economic growth and greater family cohesion.

(3)  The chances of “Ban the Box” legislation passing in many states is slim to none.  Elected officials don’t want look “soft on crime.”  Hence, such laws present a political conundrum.  Many elected officials who oppose government intrusion on business and who also fear repercussions at the ballot box, might agree in private that the positives of “Ban the Box” laws outweigh the bad.  However nowadays, political courage is exceedingly rare.

 

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Posted by on Feb 21, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 2 comments

The Tipping Point on Gay Rights

 

 

Last night, I attended a monthly meeting at the Clark County Democratic Party headquarters, here in Las Vegas.

As is regularly the custom, speakers from various organizations show up at these meetings to inform and educate those of us in the audience on important issues of the day.

James Healey was the latest guest speaker.  He’s a progressive activist who also works full time as a casino executive for MGM-Mirage corporation.  Healey previously served as a legislator in the Nevada State Assembly.  He also happens to be gay.

I normally wouldn’t mention that, because it’s no more relevant than if he has blue eyes or brown eyes.  But since our nightly topic of discussion was gay rights, which are now under serious threat by the Trump Administration (and many state legislatures and localities — which lean Republican), his presentation was accompanied by both an added sense of passion and urgency.

Let’s be clear.  To our credit as a nation, American public opinion has evolved rather quickly on the once-controversial topic of gay rights.  Virtually everyone now knows someone who’s openly gay.  Popular television shows and movies feature gay characters, who are usually portrayed in a positive way.  Young people overwhelming see a person’s sexual orientation as a total non-issue.  The stats don’t lie — For the first time ever, a majority of the country believes gay people are entitled to equal rights and protections, including marriage equality.

That’s all a good thing.

After I heard the talk, while driving home, I pondered my own mental and emotional “evolution” on the subject of gay rights.  I’m not proud of this, but as a teenager, I used to engage in the typical pranks of philistine adolescence, which — sorry to say — included making derogatory remarks about those who were suspected to be homosexual.  I used insensitive slurs, including “faggot” and other mean words on regular occasion.  That didn’t make me a bad person.  Those actions were however, a reflection of my ignorance, and to a greater extent — a lack of exposure to the full diversity that makes up the American Experience.

I’m not sure there was any single moment that qualifies as a “tipping point” for me on gay rights.  That is to say, I don’t remember any specific incident that transformed me from the typical brutish-acting macho straight guy into someone far more empathetic and compassionate for people who on other times would have been inviting targets.  Perhaps it was attending college and simply being exposed to new ideas.  Maybe it was getting older and wiser.  Probably, it was working long hours in bars and restaurants, a trade where I regularly encountered people who were openly gay.  That was way back in the early 1980’s, an era that wasn’t nearly as tolerant about alternative lifestyles, as today.  There was also the terrible AIDS scare happening at the time, which certainly didn’t help straight culture to better understand gay culture.

Maturity, I believe, is incremental.  It’s all a gradual process.  Over time, I came to understand that gay rights was to our time as the civil rights struggle was to the generation which proceeded us.  And today, there are other noble causes, and there will me more things to fight for in the future.  The struggle for justice never ends.  There’s always a voice in the dark needing aid and comfort from torment.  Freedoms are an obligation to be protected by all, whether we agree or not with those whom need our support.

What I wonder is this — what made most of us (who are straight) to come around on the subject of gay rights?  Was it watching Will and Grace?  Was it finding out that a friend or loved one was gay?  Was it a personal experience that changed your mind?  What was it?

I think this is a critical question to ask because it provides a list of formulas that are proven to be effective.  If many of us who used to sling cruel derogatory slurs could evolve and ultimately become outspoken advocates of gay rights (which includes many reading these words right now), then we should try to employ those same tactics and with others who haven’t caught on yet in the future.  My belief is this — nearly everyone is capable of being swayed on this issue, dare I say — even conservatives and religious people.  I do believe many conservatives and religious people are good people who want to do the right thing.  Perhaps those who continue to strongly oppose justice and equality for all simply haven’t been approached yet….in the right way.  Our mission must be to find ways to reach them.

To be clear, there is a vocal contingent within the gay activist movement which vociferously rejects the notion of gaining “acceptance” from mainstream society.  Rightfully, their belief is that human rights and legal protections aren’t souvenirs to be handed out by the majority as though they’re providing favors.  In other words, they don’t give a damn whether you approve of them, or not.

Good for them.  Defiance can indeed be courageous.

However, since the potential rollback on gay rights is now very real in this country (and certainly continues to be a monumental problem in many foreign cultures), it would be advisable for those of us who are engaged in the fight to try and better understand on what works, versus what doesn’t.

And so, I ask those of you who wish to contribute to our understanding of this issue:  What, if anything, was the major turning point that transformed you from either opposition or indifference, to being a supporter of gay rights?

Obviously, this question is geared to those who have successfully evolved on this issue.

To those of you who haven’t yet, we’ll get back at you later.

 

[To join the discussion on Facebook, please CLICK HERE.]

 

A final thought:  I would be remiss were I not to point out Mr. Healey’s observation that Nevada, while progressive on many other issues, doesn’t have much to brag about on this issue.  Yet, strangely enough, within the poker culture, gay rights enjoys widespread support.  Many top poker pros who are openly gay, which makes poker way ahead of other competitive enterprises.  That’s something to be proud of.

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Posted by on Apr 15, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 5 comments

The Opportunity for Redemption Should Be Part of Our Criminal Justice System

 

FILE - Charles Manson followers, from left: Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten, shown walking to court to appear for their roles in the 1969 cult killings of seven people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, in Los Angeles, Calif., in this Aug. 20, 1970 file photo. 44 years after she went to prison, Leslie Van Houten is an old woman with gray hair and wrinkles and she is facing her 20th parole hearing Wednesday June 5, 2013 with multiple forces arrayed against her bid for a chance at freedom in her old age. (AP Photo/George Brich, File)

 

I just read Leslie Van Houten has been recommended for parole in California.

For those who don’t remember her, Van Houten was one of the most infamous followers of Charles Manson, who orchestrated two horrific killing sprees.  Manson is now 81, and basically a human fruit loop.

Joined by several other members of the Manson cult, Van Houten first conspired to kill and then carried out those acts directly in the murder of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, which made headlines in August 1969.  The couple was repeatedly stabbed to death by Van Houten, along with other Manson followers.  The LaBiana’s had been relaxing in their Los Angeles home when the drug-crazed groupies showed up and began slashing their victims with knives.  The grisly murders and the circus trial which followed became a media sensation later documented in the best-selling book, titled “Helter Skelter.”

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Posted by on Mar 16, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Sports Betting | 3 comments

Stardust Memories: The Thief Who Got Away

 

060104_stardust_hmed_9a.grid-6x2

 

“We all have a little larceny on our souls.”

— Anonymous

 

Sometime during the morning of September 22, 1992, a casino employee named Bill Brennan walked out of the Stardust in Las Vegas with $507,361 in cash and gaming chips.

He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

That brazen yet seemingly effortless crime caper remains the casino industry’s most lucrative unsolved heist ever.  Now, close to a quarter-century later, Brennan not only has vanished.  He remains the only successful mastermind of an inside job in Las Vegas history who (apparently) got away with it.  Amazingly, he very likely committed the theft entirely on his own.  He’s either passed away since then, or odds are in his favor that he’s still out there somewhere, perhaps even reading this article right now.

If we all truly have “a little larceny in our souls,” Brennan isn’t so much an object of derision any longer;  Rather he’s become the object of our odd infatuation and even affection with the classic anti-hero.  He didn’t merely “break the bank” as Charles Wells is alleged to have done at the Casino at Monte Carlo way back in 1891.  Brennen didn’t just break the bank.  He didn’t even rob the bank.  He stole the bank.

Brennan, who was age 34 at the time, was employed at the Stardust Casino for about four years when the theft took place.  His co-workers later described him as a quiet person, someone who usually kept to himself (it’s always the one you’d least suspect).  “Gaming Today” writer Richard Saber, who was the former Stardust race and sportsbook manager recalled, “he was basically a total complete loner.”  [FOOTNOTE 1]  “They never found a trace of Bill Brennan anywhere.  Never a trace.”  [FOOTNOTE 2]

Even more remarkable — Brennan’s exit wasn’t captured anywhere on surveillance cameras, even though virtually every square inch of the casino floor space was watched and recorded 24-hours a day.  Police and security analysts weren’t able to figure out exactly where he departed the building, or ascertain where he went afterward.  All that’s known was, Brennan dutifully arrived at work on what was to be his final day, and then disappeared with more than half a million dollars secretly seized from the race and sportsbook’s vault.  There’s been no sighting of him since that morning.

Several theories abound as to what actually happened.  Some insiders at the Stardust at the time noted that Brennan had become friendly with someone described as “a big bettor,” who also disappeared from the Las Vegas sports gambling scene a short while following the daring theft.  Yet no one has identified the big-betting mystery man by name (at least not in information that’s been released publicly).  The theory Brennan fell under the spell of “a big bettor” who was dishonest and perhaps even encouraged a trusted employee to commit the crime doesn’t make much sense.  After all, why would Brennan need the assistance of an outsider, since he was taking on all the risk?  Given the heist included not just cash but casino chips, how could the bettor cash them out later, without being detected?  This theory seems circumstantial, and even far-fetched.  Nonetheless, the conspiracy theories continue to swirl.

Another theory goes that Brennan paid off one (or more) security personnel, so he could make his exit undetected.  No one has been able to prove this.  Evidence is non-existent.  Race and Sportsbook employees then, just as now, would have been required to enter and exit the building via one of the employee’s entrances (the Stardust had one access point, but then also had a large number of un-alarmed fire exits).  Casino workers typically are not permitted come and go to and from public areas.  Such employee policy infractions were (and still can be) a terminable offense.  Given that Brennan had worked inside the race and sportsbook for four years, his face would have been well-known to most security personnel, who patrol the exits at all times.  Certainly, his exit hoisting some kind of bag holding an exceedingly large sum of cash would have been noticed by security.  This seems to be another accusation lacking in merit.

Yet another outlandish theory is Brennan was set up by someone else on the outside and had a partner.  Allegedly, he stole the money, and then was killed soon thereafter by figures connected to organized crime.  Once again, this appears to be a wild concoction lacking any evidence.  Truth is, this crime was an embarrassment for both Stardust management and security.  Indeed, in the face of the proverbial thief David felling the casino giant Goliath, some have become desperate enough to grasp at conspiratorial straws which somehow diminish the precept that sometimes a lone man armed with little more than gutsy fearlessness can commit a daring act and get away with it.  The establishment is reluctant to hate to admit being outfoxed.  So instead, we invent illogical theories to reinforce an illusion that good always triumphs over evil and the bad guys end up in prison.

During the aftermath and investigation, Brennan’s apartment was visited by authorities and searched in a last-dash desperate grasp for clues.  Investigators discovered that he lived alone and had a pet cat.  This was hardly the plot of an intriguing CSI episode.  When police searched the abandoned apartment, Brennan and his cat were both long gone.  However, they did reportedly find several books and other materials related to the subject of changing one’s identity and moving overseas.  It remains uncertain as to how Brennan might have traveled to another country with a cat, without being detected or listed in a record somewhere, but I digress.

The Stardust is now but a fading memory.  It’s become a vacant lot filled with blowing garbage and dormant construction equipment layered in desert dust.  Days have become months, which turned into years.  The casino was demolished in 2007.  Nobody’s searching for Bill Brennan anymore.  In all likelihood, he could probably dance over the pavement where he committed his crime years ago, scream out “Here I am!  I did it!” and no one would take much notice.

That soft underbelly of the old Stardust was perfectly plump for someone like Bill Brennan to come along and slice open that bulging belly bloated with treasure.  A decade removed from the saucy Argent scandal that resulted in several murders and took down the crime-syndicate ownership and management, this becoming the basis of the movie “Casino,” the Stardust was still the sportsbook of choice for many wiseguys and high-stakes gamblers.  Still operating under out-of-date policies and procedures that dated back to Las Vegas’ archaic era of mob infiltration, when no one would even dream that a lowly rank and file employee would dare to walk out the door with half a million dollars without risking being buried somewhere in the desert, Brennan wasn’t just a thief.  He was a wake-up call jacked to the hilt with a lead foot straight to the groin of the casino establishment.

Long after the facts of the crime were reported, I’m still puzzled as to how a lone employee could exit a casino with so much money, and leave unnoticed.  What follows is my take on this mysterious caper.

Note that September 22, 1992 fell on a Tuesday.  This is an important day of the week.  It was not randomly chosen.  That meant, the theft took place immediately after the third week of the NFL season, which would have been a very busy time for any Las Vegas sportsbook.  The volume of wagers in cash would have been highest on this week perhaps than any other time other than the Super Bowl.  The previous night, the New York Giants played the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football.  This also would have been a big game with a large betting handle.  In other words, the vault was stoked with cash.

stardust_sportsbook

A few years before the Internet and the popularity of offshore betting exploded, when the only serious rival was the Las Vegas Hilton, the Stardust would have taken in quite a bundle in wagers.  Since payouts would have been massive over the next 24-hours (again — recall the heist occurred on a Tuesday morning), the amount of funds stored within the race and sportsbook vault likely would have been at its high point.  Given his experience, Brennan was most certainly aware of this.  He would have been determined to maximize his gain given the immense personal risk.  After all, he wasn’t going to chance going to prison for years robbing a casino on a slow day with a small amount of cash in the cage.  So, Brennan chose one of the richest cash days of the year.

Additional evidence suggests that Brennan would have had to carry out a bag weighing 11 pounds, at the very least.  Given that $500,000 in one-hundred dollar bills weights about 22 pounds, the absolute minimum weight would have been about half that — which is 11 pounds.  However, typically race and sportbooks take in vast sums of currency in much smaller denominations — including banknotes of $5, $10, $20, and $50.  Brennan would have been forced to carry out a significantly heavier amount of total weight, probably between 30 to 50 pounds based on the breakdown of what’s in most casino cages (perhaps two thirds in $100s, the other third comprised of other denominations).  The red flag wouldn’t have been weight so much as volume.  Brennan would have had to hoist bundles of currency amounting to the size of a microwave oven, and then escape inconspicuously out one of the exits without being noticed.  This seems implausible without being recorded.

I’ve been in the back of the Stardust before, and remember the layout well (I interviewed the legendary sportsbook manager Joe Lupo a few times in his back office, before he left the business in 2002).  Behind the tellers, there was a huge tote board along with multiple television screens hanging overhead.  To the rear of the long counter were several cramped offices, consisting of desks, computers, and copy machines (race and sportsbooks print up a massive volume of odds sheets, and also distribute the Daily Racing Form for several racetracks, which is quite an undertaking).  Somewhere within all this noise and clutter, there was a vault tucked away somewhere (I never saw that part of the operation) and Brennan had full access to it.  He must have taken the loot from there, and then made his daring escape.

A final consideration is the casino chips which were included as part of the heist.  To date, Las Vegas Metro Police have not disclosed the amount of chips believed to be part of the spoils.  One presumes it would have been relatively easy for one of Brennan’s associates to launder the stolen casino chips through tables in the pit in exchange for cash (I know a little something about this — recall my $5,000 chip what was confiscated by the MGM Grand in 2006, which became a major news story).  At the time, RFID technology did not exist, so even the larger chips would have been untraceable.  It would have been much easier to launder chips through the cash later on, in multiple visits posing as a gambler.  Admittedly, this would have required Brennan to likely use an undetectable associate, who wouldn’t be noticed gambling at the tables, and then cashing out numerous times.  Then, there’s the possibility that he never tried to cash the chips, assessing the risk was too high.

dbcooper

Some robbers and thieves commit acts so remarkable they become mythological, even sympathetic to some degree.  One of the best illustrations of this was “D.B. Cooper,” who hijacked a 727 flying between Seattle and Portland in 1971, and then jumped out the jet’s back door loaded with a parachute and $200,000 in a ransom that was paid.  He has never been captured.  That great mystery remains unsolved.  This crime is every bit as intriguing, and frankly, far less known for reasons which are pretty obvious.  Casinos are eager to catch thieves and even make public examples out of them — that is, if and when they’re caught.  But when they’re not captured, casinos would prefer the successful escapades of criminals to receive as little publicity as possible.  Casinos don’t want their workers getting any wild ideas to pull another Bill Brennan.

As expected, casino race and sportsbooks learned some valuable lessons from the Stardust heist.  They implemented new controls and installed added layers of security which presumably would hinder any single employee from raiding a cashier cage and get out the door with so much money.  In fact, no race and sportsbook has been robbed since then, at least not as an inside job.

Nonetheless, Bill Brennan appears to have committed the perfect crime without ever using a weapon or threatening anyone.  A mild-mannered man whom no one would have suspected beat the system, beat Las Vegas, and then vanished.  He even, in all likelihood, managed to outlive the Stardust, which has since disappeared.

 

Writer’s Note:  The suspect’s full name is William John Brennan.  He has been identified in media reports as both “Bill Brennan” and “John Brennan.”

Footnote 1:   “TIME IS A THIEF”

Footnote 2:  UNSOLVED MYSTERIES

_____

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Posted by on Feb 27, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Personal | 1 comment

Night of the Living Dead in Las Vegas (Part 2)

 

Scheinin.1.SBW12298.BP/Photo Brian Pobuda Deputy Medical Examiner Lisa Scheinin (right) documents her visual observations as she begins an autopsy during a recent shift at the Department of Coroner in Los Angeles.

 

We’re all going to die sometime — hopefully a long while from now and not in too much pain.

When that happens, someone we do not know, who we’ve likely never met before, will determine our cause of death.  The overwhelming majority of deaths in this country occur from sicknesses and other natural causes.  Some die from accidents.  Others are suicides.  However, some deaths arouse suspicions.  A small percentage even involve foul play — even murder.  That’s where the science of forensic pathology comes in.  These experts with strong stomachs and a formadible fortitude examine bodies, collect the evidence, and ultimately make determinations which can sometimes produce far broader implications, not just for survivors of the deceased, but for society, as well.

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