By Norm Clarke
VSiN Contributing Columnist
Las Vegas attorney John Hunt won more than a whopping gaming debt case – he hit the lottery in Super Bowl tickets.
More on that later.
First, his backstory.
Hunt, who grew up in Brockton, Mass., arrived in Las Vegas in 1976 after serving in the Air Force. During an interview in his tower office in the Howard Hughes Center, Hunt pointed to a photo among his collection of keepsakes.
“That’s a picture of me as a mascot for the 1976-77 UNLV basketball team. That was the year they went to their first Final Four,” he said.
“I was a decent basketball player so I decided to walk on the team. I thought Tark (coach Jerry Tarkanian) would keep me for my grade-point average,” said Hunt, with a grin as wide as his bow tie.
Hunt didn’t make the cut, so he got involved in student government at UNLV.
The way Hunt remembers it, “One day, Reggie Theus and some of the guys came to me, I don’t know if you remember this, but the original mascot of the team was a wolf called Beauregard.”
Las Vegas, at that time, said Hunt, “was probably the most racist town in the west. It was called Dixie of the West. People used to come to the games with confederate flags and in confederate hats and the wolf was a gray wolf like in opposition to Reno. Right?
“So I was head of student government they came to me and said ‘We’re all for being Rebels, but we’re not that rebel.’ So I made a motion and we abolished Beaureguard and this is like 40 years before South Carolina (ended the practice of flying the Confederate flag's 54-year run at the South Carolina Capitol grounds).”
After getting an accounting degree, he worked at the gaming control board in the audit division. Then he headed to San Diego to get a law degree.
Upon his return, “I got to work for the greatest lawyer who ever lived, Mort Galane. He was like my mentor, my intellectual father figure. He was awesome.”
Galane was a legend in Las Vegas courtrooms. He represented headliner Wayne Newton in his libel suit against NBC for a report that alleged mob ties. He represented Howard Hughes’ top lieutenant Robert Maheu in a libel suit against the reclusive billionaire. One of Galane’s clerks in 1965 was an aspiring lawyer named Oscar Goodman, who rose to prominence as a mob attorney and became a two-term mayor of Las Vegas.
Around the mid-1980s, the IRS ruled gaming debts were not enforceable “because gambling was against public policy,” said Hunt.
“So you could not get a judgment on somebody on a gaming debt,” he said. “So when the hotels heard that the IRS position was that debts were not deductible from the bottom line they went to the Nevada legislature and made gaming debts enforceable, which meant you get a judgment if you did not pay it.”
According to Hunt, the statute originally read “you must get a contemporaneous (timely) exchange for the chips.
“What it meant, if you’re playing 21 and you’d like a marker for say 10 grand or five grand and of course in between sign the marker, she gives you the chips. A contemporaneous exchange for the chips for the marker. Here’s your marker, sign it. Ok, here’s your chips. And everybody knows this is the real deal because when you sign those markers that’s just like signing a check at a bank. It’s a check that can be drawn on.”
That’s how the statute read and initially many gamblers were trying to get out of paying their debt, he said.
One day a Florida banker arrived in Galane’s law office and explained that he lost $750,000 during a gambling binge.
“He says to Mort, ‘It’s really important I don’t have this on my record. Is there anything you can do for me?”
Galane turns to Hunt, who was two years out of law school, and said, “John, didn’t you work at the gaming control board?'”
“I remembered the statute, and I said, ‘What were you playing when you lost the money?”
“I was playing craps,” said the banker.
“I go, ‘Then I assume you signed a marker at the end?’”
“Yes,” said the banker.
Hunt told him, “Then you owe them nothing because the only way that gaming debts can be enforceable is by a statute. The statute has to be strictly complied with. If the statute is not strictly complied with then the marker is void. At least that’s my argument.”
At the time, Caesars Palace had had filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking payment of the gambling debt.
Hunt said he went before Judge Lloyd George and made the case that “in the history of anglo saxon jurisprudence gaming debts have always been unenforceable because they are against public policy. The only reason they are enforceable, in this particular case now, is because the State of Nevada realized if they weren’t enforceable is because the IRS said they couldn’t be deductible.
“So now we have a statute and that statute, and I quote, says 'there must be a contemporaneous exchange for the chips for the marker.' In this case my client was playing craps. He did not sign the marker until the end of play so he was issued chips during the course of the game without ever signing a marker and the reason why they wanted the contemporaneous exchange is because if you look at the legislative intent it was so that the potential patron knew the solemnity of the moment.
“And by having someone not sign until the end of play they were not given the solemnity of the moment,” Hunt contended.
“And because they did not strictly comply with the statute the debt is void. Judge George says to the guy from Caesars, ‘I think you’ve got to go outside and talk to Mr. Hunt, because if I rule in his favor, which I’m inclined to do, then gaming in Nevada will change forever because you’ll have to stop the game — a craps game — in order to issue credit. So you’d have to say, ‘If you want credit for the next roll, who wants credit? You'd have to do the marker.’”
So Hunt and the Caesars attorney left the courtroom and Caesars agreed to give the banker a 90 percent discount.
The banker, now deceased, accepted a $75,000 settlement, and told Hunt, “Until I die you will get two Super Bowl tickets a year.”
Every year for 15 or 16 Super Bowls, Hunt got his tickets. When he gave them away, his only stipulation was that he got the ticket stubs, which he has saved.
“Herb (the banker) was one of those old-school people. If he said it, it happened.”
THE SCENE AND HEARD
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A spy tells me the 2017 Nevada Sports Hall of Fame class will induct boxing great Floyd Mayweather Jr., golf instructor extraordinaire Butch Harmon, Sam Schmidt, a former Indy Racing League driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights series team owner, the Las Vegas Bowl, and Overton Curtis, a football standout at Las Vegas High and Utah State…
In one of the most memorable closings in the 33-year history of the Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Woman of the Year Black and White Ball, honoree Vanessa Williams and childhood friend David Weinreb, now CEO of Howard Hughes Corp., sang “On a Clear Day” and “Sunny Side of the Street.” Williams and Weinreb are friends going back to their musical roots at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, N.Y. She told the crowd Weinreb had his own band at age 12 and toured upstate New York “with his name on the front of the drum kit.” The gala was held at Aria…
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ON THIS DAY IN…
Jan. 30, 1905: The San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad is completed, connecting Utah with Los Angeles and running through Las Vegas. Train service starts a few days later, a vital factor in the city’s development.
THE PUNCH LINE
“There are reports that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway actually punched a guy while trying to break up a fight at Trump’s inaugural ball. Though she says it wasn’t a punch, it was an ‘alternative high-five.’” -- Jimmy Fallon