Feud between casino mogul and porn purveyor enters L.A. court
Steve Wynn and Joe Francis provided a crash course this week in how rich men settle scores.
The Las Vegas casino mogul and the “Girls Gone Wild” impresario have been publicly warring since 2008. Their feud began as many do: with one man, Wynn, claiming the other, Francis, owed him money.
It escalated to name-calling. Then incendiary accusations involving prostitution and death threats. So Wynn and Francis did what men of their pocketbook size often do: They called their attorneys.
This week, they faced off in a Los Angeles courtroom in a made-for-TMZ defamation case whose star witness was Grammy-winning producer Quincy Jones. It is one of four lawsuits Wynn and Francis have filed against each other in recent years, with each one offering the foes another high-profile opportunity to hurl insults. (For those counting, Wynn is 2-0 in civil judgments. Francis owes him at least $9.5 million.)
The case being heard this week began in 2010, when Francis said Wynn wanted to “hit me in the back of the head with a shovel and bury me in the desert” — the sort of “terrible lie,” Wynn testified this week, that could impugn his reputation and that of his eponymous gambling empire.
Wynn, 70, took the stand one day in a tan suit, his hair as bronze as the glass that wraps his luxury Strip casinos. He resisted the efforts of Francis’ legal team to unleash his temper, the stuff of legend in Las Vegas, saying he’d mellowed with age and the help of the Dalai Lama, whom he considers a friend.
Still, Wynn grimaced through a decades-old TV clip that Francis’ team played. In it, Wynn tells a TV reporter he’ll choke her if she doesn’t include a certain piece of information. (He said he was joking.) And he had no kind words for Francis, who wasn’t in court at the time.
“He’s unrepentant, vicious, out-of-control,” Wynn seethed. He added that Jones — Wynn’s friend and Francis’ neighbor — didn’t think highly of Francis, either: “He refers to Joe Francis as a screwball, a maniac, as worse than a villain.”
But did Wynn ever confide in Jones that he wanted Francis, 39, dead? Francis’ team suggested Wynn was capable of it, particularly considering the men’s fraught history.
The saga began in 2007. After a multi-day betting spree at Wynn Las Vegas, Francis owed the casino about $2 million, court papers said.
But Francis soon wound up behind bars: first in Florida for contempt of court, then in Nevada on suspicion of federal income tax evasion. Francis eventually pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns and bribing Nevada jail workers to bring him sushi and barbecued chicken.
Wynn officials waited until Francis was out of jail to try to recoup the money. Francis balked, according to testimony this week by Larry Altschul, a Wynn employee tasked with wooing high-rollers. “You’re making the biggest ... mistake of your life,” Altschul quoted Francis as saying. “You have no idea what’s coming.”
In 2008, Wynn officials sued Francis for the money. A Nevada judge ruled in the casino’s favor; Francis appealed to the state Supreme Court and lost.
Meanwhile, Francis accused Wynn officials of plying him with prostitutes and using other deceptive practices to keep him betting. So Wynn sued Francis for defamation. Wynn won that battle, too, with a Nevada judge awarding him $7.5 million earlier this year.
A third lawsuit is percolating in federal court, in which Francis accuses Wynn of maliciously reporting their dispute to the local district attorney’s office. A Nevada judge eventually threw out the criminal charges filed against Francis.
At some point, Francis testified this week, Jones told him that Wynn said via email that he wanted Francis dead. In deposition testimony read in court, Francis said Jones warned him about Wynn: “He’s gangster. He’s old Vegas. He doesn’t play.”
Wynn denied threatening to kill Francis. He also denied using email — ever.
So the courtroom was packed Thursday for the arrival of Jones, who could perhaps end one battle in the Wynn-Francis war.
Wearing black-rimmed glasses and speaking softly, Jones injected some humor into proceedings: At one point, Jones called himself “Malcolm in the middle.” He said he and Francis had been close enough that he flew to Florida when Francis was jailed there.
“Lot of drama, man,” Jones said in describing his neighbor.
Jones said he’d tried to broker peace between Francis and Wynn by urging Francis to wipe out his debt. “If you lose the money, you pay the money,” Jones said he told Francis. Instead, Jones ended up in court, undercutting Francis’ case.
Jones said — repeatedly — that Wynn never threatened to kill the porn purveyor, and that Jones had never told Francis that Wynn had. Jones also said he was curious to see the death-threat messages Francis swore existed.
As for Francis’ contention that Jones warned him that Wynn was a “gangster”?
“That sounds like a line from ‘Scarface,’” Jones said, and several jurors smiled.