Special Treatment Keeps Them Under the Radar

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

One Nevada judge was nearly indicted on blackmail charges. Another ruled repeatedly for a casino corporation in which he held more than 10,000 shares. Still another overruled state authorities and decided in favor of a gambling boss who was notorious as a mob frontman, and whose casino did the judge a $2,800 favor.

Yet the Nevada Supreme Court has conferred upon these judges a special distinction that exempts them from some of the common rules of judicial practice and reduces their accountability. They are among 17 state judges whom the high court has commissioned as senior judges.

Unlike regular judges, senior judges are not answerable to the voters, but serve at the pleasure of the high court, and that can mean for life. Unlike regular judges, they can reject assignments until they are given a case they want to try. Unlike regular judges, they cannot be removed from a case by peremptory challenge. And until last year, they did not have to disclose their financial interests.

With this exceptional flexibility, they could try lawsuits in which they had a personal stake without revealing it. And because they cannot be removed by peremptory challenge, which normally permits a one-time replacement of a judge at the beginning of any case simply for the asking, it is possible for litigants to be stuck with senior judges, their conflicts of interest and their decisions.

The judge who was nearly indicted is James A. Brennan. He resigned as a state judge to avoid being charged by a federal grand jury with blackmail. After the state Supreme Court returned Brennan to the bench and then named him a senior judge, he presided over at least 16 cases involving participants in his real estate deals. A recent search found no statement in court records that Brennan publicly disclosed those relationships.

The judge who ruled for a casino corporation in which he held stock is Stephen L. Huffaker. He owned 12,000 shares of the corporation while the case was before him. In addition, he presided over cases involving another casino corporation whose foundation gave his son a partial scholarship to Yale University. A recent search found no statement in court records that Huffaker publicly disclosed the scholarship at the time.

The judge who ruled in favor of the gambling boss is Joseph S. Pavlikowski. In 1969, he officiated at the wedding of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, known as a frontman for the Chicago mob. Pavlikowski then accepted a discounted wedding reception for his daughter at a casino where Rosenthal was a top executive. He subsequently ruled for Rosenthal in three cases when authorities tried to take action against him.

Senior judges, including Brennan, Huffaker and Pavlikowski, are on call statewide to fill in temporarily at any level of the state courts in which they have previous experience. Sometimes they are brought in when local judges disqualify themselves from sensitive and thorny cases.

The Supreme Court, the highest-ranking court in the state, created senior judges in 1977 to ease a workload that has since grown to an average of 2,700 cases for each regular judge in Las Vegas per year.

The high court acted independently of the Legislature. It wrote its own rules for the senior judges, said Ronald R. Titus, the state court administrator. “Nothing in the statutes,” Titus said, “talks about senior judges.”

The Legislature, however, controls their budget. At one time it was limited to $340,000 annually, and at one point senior judges numbered as few as half a dozen. But since then, more senior judges have been added. The Legislature budgeted $1.5 million last year. Their number may continue to grow along with southern Nevada.

In response to written questions, Robert E. Rose, chief justice of the Supreme Court, said senior judges were accountable because their decisions might be appealed to the Supreme Court. It is, however, the same court that appointed them.

“We must rely on the senior judge to recuse himself or herself in conflict-of-interest situations,” Rose said, “or at least bring [the conflict] to the attention of the parties [involved in the case]. And any party can file a motion to disqualify a judge for cause.”

Unlike a peremptory challenge, however, removal for cause is not automatic and must be decided by another judge.

Rose also said court administrators monitored the performance of senior judges.

“Many senior judges have had long and distinguished careers,” Rose said. “History has shown that judges have the ability to rule fairly and impartially on cases, based on the facts and the law.... To date, no application to become a senior judge or justice has been denied....

“Senior judges are a tremendous asset to the judiciary and the citizens,” Rose said. “They are often among the most experienced judges around. They serve only when needed, thus providing a great resource at a bargain price. Without senior judges, it would be necessary to add full-time judges at a cost of millions of dollars.

“Senior judges simply provide the best bang for the buck.”


James A. Brennan

Chapter 1

Threat of Indictment

Judge Brennan almost wound up in the dock himself.

In 1988, a friend, Ada Livingston, died. She had been living with Brennan’s mother. The judge and his mother found $56,000 worth of savings bonds in her suitcase. The bonds were issued to Livingston and her granddaughter, Marianne Catelli, who lived in Long Branch, N.J., according to court records.

“Brennan said he would send me the bonds, but then I had to cash them and give him half the money,” Catelli, now 61, said in a telephone interview. She said Brennan did not tell her the total value of the bonds. “He said he would mail me a few bonds to cash, and then, when I paid him, he would send me more.”

Catelli went to the FBI. William A. Maddox, then the U.S. attorney in Las Vegas, said in an interview that he took the matter to a grand jury and determined that Brennan and his mother could be indicted “for blackmail under federal law.” Maddox, now a state judge in Carson City, Nev., said his goal was not to indict but “to force Brennan to resign and to keep him from being a judge again.”

“I didn’t like what he did,” Maddox said. “That’s not the kind of thing a judge should do.”

Brennan agreed to resign and not run for reelection for at least 18 months, Maddox said. “We figured the 18 months would put Brennan beyond the next judicial election [in 1990], and then, by the next judicial election [in 1996], he would have been out of the public eye for eight years.” Together with the investigation, Maddox said, this passage of time would “make it pretty hard [for him] to get elected.”

In March 1989, Brennan announced that he was stepping down. It was not long, however, before he was back on the bench.

When his 18-month hiatus ended, 16 Las Vegas state judges signed a resolution of support -- whereupon the Supreme Court appointed him to a 58-day temporary judgeship, beginning Jan. 2, 1991, to ease the caseload in his old judicial district. The appointment was continued for a year, and in 1992 the Supreme Court commissioned Brennan as a senior judge.

He is in his 14th year without having had to face election.

Maddox said: “Our goal was to make sure Brennan wouldn’t run -- never serve on the bench again. What can I say?”

The news did not reach Catelli until March 2004, when a Times reporter called. “Isn’t that cute!” she said. “I was told he wouldn’t get back in office. If it were you or me, we’d be in jail. They said they were going to keep him out of the next election. Well, isn’t that cute! It’s all about who you know, isn’t it?”

Brennan was given written questions about this and other cases in this story. He did not respond.


Chapter 2

A Testimonial

The letter praised a man accused of smuggling drugs.

Judge Brennan wrote it to a federal magistrate in Tampa, Fla., vouching for Benjamin Barrington, then 48, of Las Vegas, who was under indictment on charges of running a cocaine smuggling ring in Nevada, Texas and Florida. Barrington was appearing before the magistrate for bail.

A transcript of the bail hearing shows that Brennan’s letter was one of three from judges who vouched for Barrington. The others, according to the transcript, were from Charles Springer, then the chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court, and from Dan Ahlstrom, then a Las Vegas justice of the peace.

The case received wide publicity. Court records and a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper show that Brennan’s letter, dated Nov. 21, 1985, was the most effusive.

“For the last couple of years,” Brennan wrote, “I have been a guest in Ben’s home, where I have had the opportunity and the pleasure to observe a very dedicated husband and father. Ben’s son, Benjie, and his wife idolize Ben, and a team of horses could not separate Ben from his family. On numerous occasions, Ben and I have gotten together for ‘intelligent’ conversations over cocktails, and I unequivocally state that Ben is a man who will make every court appearance which is required of him.”

In a recent interview with The Times, the Florida magistrate, Thomas G. Wilson, recalled being troubled. “I thought right away it was a violation of judicial ethics. So when we broke from the hearing, I went right to the judicial ethics codes, and it said in plain English a judge is not to voluntarily lend the weight of his office to support someone’s interest like this.”

Wilson denied bail for Barrington. He received a lengthy sentence, according to a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and he died in custody. Wilson said the Nevada judges who vouched for Barrington “gave the impression the bench was a good-old-boys group. It didn’t raise my opinion of the Nevada judiciary.”

Springer, now a Reno attorney, told The Times, “I shouldn’t have written that letter.” Ahlstrom, now the public administrator for Clark County, including Las Vegas, said that in hindsight “a judge would be well advised not to write such a letter.”


Chapter 3

The Venetian

After Brennan was returned to the bench and named a senior judge, the way he handled one major case came under particular attack.

The case involved a breach-of-contract dispute between the $1.5-billion Venetian casino and resort and its builder, Lehrer McGovern Bovis Inc. Brennan appointed his former law clerk, Erika Pike Turner, as special master to conduct hearings.

Venetian lawyers said Turner was inexperienced and that her law firm represented four clients who had interests in the case. Moreover, they said, Brennan had given her such sweeping authority that “essentially nothing remains for [him] to do but enter judgment.”

When Brennan did not remove her, the Venetian complained to the Supreme Court about Turner -- and said that Brennan, as an appointee under the senior judge program, had not been independently elected. Venetian lawyers also pointed out that he had been forced to resign years earlier to avoid indictment.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the senior judge issue, but said that Brennan had abused his discretion by giving Turner such broad authority.

One justice, Deborah Agosti, said Brennan had been appointed to ease the court caseload, but then had appointed someone to relieve him of his caseload. He “ought to handle this case himself,” she said.

A jury awarded Lehrer McGovern Bovis $44.2 million -- but also awarded the Venetian $2.3 million for shoddy workmanship.


Chapter 4

Conflicts of Interest?

Judge Brennan’s financial dealings tell a story of power in Las Vegas. He has been in business with some of the most influential people in town.

He and his Brennan Family Limited Partnership and the James A. Brennan Family Revocable Trust have appeared in at least 180 recordings of land and financial transactions in southern Nevada since his return to the bench in 1991.

His partners and co-investors number more than 300 and include some of Nevada’s most powerful political and gambling figures.

Since 1997, for example, Brennan has participated in at least 45 real estate transactions in Las Vegas with Gov. Kenny Guinn, now in his second term, and with Guinn’s family. Many of the transactions were made through the Kenny C. Guinn IRA; the Guinn Family Trust; the governor’s son, Jeffrey; and the son’s mortgage company, Aspen Financial Services, county land records show.

Nevada Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt also appears with Brennan in several transactions.

Aside from the governor, an array of longtime casino bosses, developers, lawyers, financiers, contractors, real estate agents, bankers and mortgage brokers often have been named in land records as repeat real estate partners and co-investors with Brennan over the years. Some are lawyers.

Many have had cases before him.

Sometimes he has withdrawn, but rarely said why.

Without disclosing his relationships, Brennan has ruled in at least 16 lawsuits since 1991 that involved one or more of his real estate or investment partners or their attorneys, according to a review of land and court records.

U.S. and Nevada judicial canons say judges should withdraw from cases where their impartiality might reasonably be questioned. Nevada canons also say judges must avoid even the appearance of impropriety and should reveal on the record anything that they think anyone in court could reasonably consider relevant to disqualification -- even if the judges do not think they should withdraw.

For senior judges, including Brennan, disclosing all financial relationships has been voluntary until 2005. Now disclosure is required yearly. Historically, however, few if any senior judges ever revealed their financial interests. That made it hard for those appearing before them to know whether the judges had a conflict of interest.


Joseph S. Pavlikowski

Chapter 1

‘Lefty’ Rosenthal

The first whiff of possible conflict came at a wedding.

It was 1969. The groom was Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, whose Las Vegas exploits as a casino boss for the Chicago mob would be portrayed by Robert De Niro in the movie “Casino.”

Pavlikowski, then a justice of the peace, performed the ceremony.

The wedding was at Caesars Palace hotel and casino on the Strip. In an interview with The Times, Rosenthal said that Pavlikowski’s services, along with the band and a catered reception, were “comped,” or provided without cost, compliments of Caesars Palace.

By 1974, Pavlikowski had been elected a state judge in Las Vegas, and the Stardust hotel and casino, under Rosenthal’s control, did Pavlikowski a favor. His daughter held a wedding reception at the Stardust, and it gave him a “comp” worth $2,800 on the $4,000 tab.

The comp was revealed by The Times 2 1/2 years later in a series of stories about Las Vegas. Pavlikowski first said, “I paid that bill.” Then he said he paid only $1,200 and sent another $1,000 to the Stardust afterward, but that his check was returned. He said the bill “was padded” to help waiters with their tips.

The second and third whiffs of conflict came in the mid-1970s when, in highly publicized actions, the state Gaming Commission and the Licensing Board of Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, tried to deny Rosenthal’s bid for licensing as a key employee at the Stardust.

He appealed the Gaming Commission’s action to state court. Under rules calling for random selection among the 12 state judges then in Las Vegas, Rosenthal drew Pavlikowski to hear his case.

A recent search found no statement in court records that Pavlikowski publicly disclosed his role in Rosenthal’s wedding or that he had accepted a $2,800 comp from a Rosenthal-controlled casino.

Pavlikowski ruled in his favor.

On Feb. 3, 1977, the state Supreme Court overturned the ruling.

While the case was still on appeal, however, Rosenthal filed a separate court action to prevent denial by the county licensing board.

That case was assigned to Pavlikowski as well.

Again, a recent search found no statement in court records that he publicly disclosed his ties to Rosenthal.

And again, Pavlikowski ruled for Rosenthal, granting a temporary restraining order as well as subpoenas to depose board members.

Rosenthal agreed to drop all but one of the board members from the case: Robert Broadbent, who said in an affidavit that Pavlikowski was biased in Rosenthal’s favor.

The case was transferred to another judge.

In 1989, Rosenthal found reason to go back to court again. The Gaming Commission had put him on its List of Excluded Persons, known as the Black Book, a mug-shot catalog of notorious cheaters and mob associates that barred them from Nevada casinos.

His lawyers removed the judge assigned to his case and, again, under rules mandating random selection, Rosenthal drew Pavlikowski.

And again, Pavlikowski ruled in Rosenthal’s favor, ordering that he be removed from the Black Book.

In his ruling, Pavlikowski said he had disclosed that he was the judge who had decided the gaming license disputes. James J. Rankl, the deputy attorney general who handled the Black Book case, said, however, that he could not recall such a disclosure.

“I think,” Rankl said, “that is something I would have remembered.”

At the time, Pavlikowski was not yet a senior judge, and he could have been removed with a peremptory challenge. But Dan Reaser, chief deputy state attorney general for gaming at the time, said there was no need. “I knew we would prevail at the Supreme Court.”

Reaser was right. The high court reversed Pavlikowski. The Black Book banned Rosenthal from Nevada casinos. On its “exclusion/ejection list,” the state said Rosenthal “was suspected of overseeing a Las Vegas casino on behalf of organized crime.”

In an interview with The Times, Rosenthal was asked: “You’re the expert handicapper, Frank. What were the odds that you’d draw the same judge each time?”

Rosenthal paused.

“I didn’t even know about” the Black Book case, he said.

He was shown copies of Pavlikowski’s ruling and the Supreme Court reversal. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “You’re telling me something I didn’t know. I should drop [Pavlikowski] a line. Is he still living?”

A transcript of the Black Book proceedings shows that Rosenthal had flown in from Florida for the case, was present in Pavlikowski’s courtroom and identified himself to the judge by name.

Pavlikowski was given written questions about this and other cases in this story. He did not respond.


Chapter 2

Drunk Drivers

Arrested for drunk driving? Call John Watkins.

That’s who Pavlikowski’s son turned to when he lost his driver’s license after a drunk-driving arrest in July 1986. The son, Joseph P. Pavlikowski, was 23 at the time. At an administrative hearing, he sought a reversal, and John G. Watkins represented him.

Watkins had been Pavlikowski’s law clerk -- one of several who became his friends. As private attorneys, they remain fiercely loyal to Pavlikowski and to one another, according to Andrew S. Myers, who is one of them. Pavlikowski, in turn, is loyal to them, Myers said. “It’s like a club ... a network.”

Watkins fought 16 months to regain driving privileges for Pavlikowski’s son. In March 1988, he won. A state court returned the driver’s license.

During that time, according to court records and interviews with two former prosecutors, Pavlikowski signed 29 orders temporarily returning driving privileges for Watkins’ other clients, even though their drunk-driving cases were being heard by other judges.

A recent search of court records found no statement from Pavlikowski that he asked for or received approval from the judges -- or publicly disclosed his relationship with Watkins.

Grenville Pridham, who spent 11 years as a state prosecutor, said he discovered that many of Pavlikowski’s orders were never sent to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hence, Pridham said, the DMV was crediting drunk drivers with serving their suspensions when, in fact, they were still driving.

The Supreme Court said Pavlikowski had acted improperly and that Watkins’ failure to inform the DMV was “reprehensible.” The court fined Watkins $500.

In some cases, Pavlikowski restored driving privileges for people facing their second or third drunk-driving convictions.

In April 1997, Watkins asked Pavlikowski to let Paulette O. Riggs drive while she appealed her second drunk-driving conviction in four years. This conviction had involved an accident. A prosecutor said Riggs’ blood-alcohol level was more than 2 1/2 times the legal limit in one conviction and nearly four times in the other.

Pavlikowski allowed her to drive anyway, pending review of her case.

After five months, Riggs’ case was transferred to another judge. He revoked her driving privileges.

“Pavlikowski did favors for Watkins that no judge would do for other attorneys,” said Pridham, the former state prosecutor.

In frustration, prosecutors exercised peremptory challenges in 1994, 1996 and 1997 to remove Pavlikowski from cases involving Watkins.

At Watkins’ request, Pavlikowski refused to remove himself.

That might have been a first, according to state Judge Peter Breen of Reno, who retired in 2005 after 31 years on the bench. “I can’t remember any [other] judge trying to strike down a peremptory challenge” in favor of himself.

Watkins was given written questions about these and other cases in this story. He did not respond.


Chapter 3


A Times examination of court records shows that during the decade before 1999, when he became a senior judge, Pavlikowski determined the outcome of at least 72 cases in which Watkins or his firm defended clients accused of drunk driving or other criminal activity.

A recent search of court records found no statement from Pavlikowski that he publicly disclosed their relationship. In 66 of the cases, or nearly 90%, Pavlikowski ruled in favor of Watkins’ clients by reducing, dismissing or reversing charges or other actions filed against them, the records show.

Thirty of those cases were appeals by clients whose driving privileges had been revoked by DMV hearing officers after drunk-driving arrests. In 26 of the 30 cases, or more than 86%, Pavlikowski granted the appeals, restoring driving privileges.

By contrast, 19 of 21 such appeals to Las Vegas state judges, or more than 90%, normally are denied, according to a recent 12-month survey by the DMV. “Chances of getting a reversal in [state] court are 1 in 10,” said Randall Pike, a longtime Las Vegas criminal defense attorney.

In California, “your chances for such a reversal are 1 in 50,” said Anthony Scott, a Redondo Beach attorney, who said he had handled about 1,500 drunk-driving cases in the last 14 years.

How did Watkins fare before other judges?

A Times review of 209 DMV license revocations that Watkins appealed to 10 other judges shows they ruled against his clients in 176 cases -- and for them in 33. Hence, his success rate was 16%.

As for the success rate of Watkins’ fellow attorneys before Pavlikowski, a Times examination of 317 drunk-driving appeals shows that while Pavlikowski granted nearly 90% of Watkins’ appeals, he approved three of 18, or not quite 17%, of the appeals from other lawyers.

Prosecutors who appealed Pavlikowski’s rulings favoring Watkins almost always succeeded.

In 12 of 14 instances since 1983 in which the state appealed Pavlikowski’s rulings against the DMV in favor of Watkins’ clients, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed Pavlikowski unanimously. The other two appeals were dismissed.


Chapter 4

Appointing Proteges

Pavlikowski’s commission as a senior judge in 1999 gave him no pause in appointing his former law clerks as defense attorneys in criminal cases.

For one case, budget-strapped Nye County, northwest of Las Vegas, paid two of his former clerks tens of thousands of dollars -- and remodeled a public library into a courtroom for Pavlikowski.

Pavlikowski was assigned to the case in October 2000. On trial were Robert “Red” Dyer, Nye County’s former public administrator, and his wife, Jennette. They were charged with stealing from estates of the deceased while the assets were under their jurisdiction. Dyer had named his wife as his deputy.

Pavlikowski appointed two of his former clerks, Andrew Myers and Martin Hastings, to defend them. Records show Pavlikowski had appointed Hastings in at least 15 other cases.

A recent search of court records found no statement from Pavlikowski that he publicly disclosed his relationships with Myers and Hastings, but their connection was no secret. “We knew they were ‘Pav’s’ former law clerks,” Robert S. Beckett, the Nye County prosecutor, recalled. “Still, I was optimistic.... We have a tight budget and didn’t want this to drag. We felt ‘Pav’ would move this case along.”

Instead, Beckett said, it became one of the longest and most expensive cases in Nye County history. By the time it ended, court records show, Pavlikowski had ordered the county to pay Myers’ fees totaling about $52,000 and Hastings’ fees totaling about $61,000.

And then there was the courtroom.

Neither Myers nor Hastings wanted to drive the 120-mile round trip from Las Vegas to the tiny town of Pahrump and back every day on a two-lane road clogged with trucks, Myers said in an interview.

Beckett said: “We knew ‘Pav’ didn’t want to drive out here” either.

As the trial neared, the official courtroom was closed to remove mold suspected of causing bloody noses, hair loss, fatigue, memory loss, rashes and sore throats, according to county records and interviews.

In its place, a corrugated metal building on a rocky lot was converted into a crude, temporary courtroom.

Pavlikowski balked.

“So we decided to build a courtroom for ‘Pav,’ ” Beckett said. The county spent about $10,000 to renovate the library. “We even made a plaque for him.”

But, Beckett said, “they still wanted to get the case to Vegas.”

Myers and Hastings argued that the Dyers could not get a fair trial in Pahrump.

Beckett, however, produced a survey that said the “majority of the public has not formed an opinion” on guilt or innocence.

Pavlikowski let jury selection begin, but prosecutors complained that he granted Myers and Hastings twice the legal number of peremptory challenges for disqualifying jurors -- and the jury pool ran dry.

Two more alternates were needed.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Kirk Vitto asked Pavlikowski “to send out for additional jurors,” court transcripts show. “The sheriff is standing by and will serve those people. We can have them here after lunch.... We are so close.”

But Pavlikowski said no.

Publicity, he said, made it impossible to summon more jurors who were impartial.

He declared a mistrial.

Moreover, Pavlikowski said, he already had booked a courtroom in Las Vegas.

“We were devastated,” Beckett said.

In Las Vegas, five weeks of trial produced 139 witnesses and 800 exhibits for the prosecution. “We were getting the hell beat out of us,” defense attorney Myers recalled. Then the next-to-last prosecution witness, Terry Rusheen, took the stand.

A former friend of the Dyers, Rusheen said he had been “self-employed with macaws and cockatoos as a bird trainer and entertainer.” The record shows he blurted: Jennette Dyer “told me to kill her....”

Lawyers for both sides jumped up and shouted, and Pavlikowski ordered jurors to disregard the statement.

Myers and Hastings demanded a mistrial. Prosecutor Vitto asked Pavlikowski to poll the jurors on whether they had heard what Rusheen said.

But Pavlikowski granted the mistrial without asking the jurors anything.

He set a new trial date.

When the defense requested a delay, Vitto objected. And before Pavlikowski could rule, Jennette Dyer disappeared.

Now Myers had no client. Court records show Pavlikowski appointed him co-counsel, along with Hastings, for Robert Dyer, the remaining defendant. Pavlikowski ordered that Myers be paid the “customary rate of $75 per hour.”

Robert Dyer pleaded guilty, then asked to withdraw the plea. Hastings said Dyer had not been thinking clearly because of oxygen deprivation caused by jailhouse rules limiting use of his pocket inhaler for asthma.

Dist. Atty. Beckett said Dyer submitted no evidence to support the claim.

But Pavlikowski granted Hastings’ request.

He also reversed himself on the difficulty of picking an impartial jury in Pahrump and returned the case to Nye County, where a new state judge had been trying Dyer on separate charges of attempting to bribe and intimidate a witness.

With that, Hastings withdrew as Dyer’s lawyer. Pavlikowski approved.

Myers, for his part, said he never drove back to Pahrump to appear on Dyer’s behalf. He said he did not know that Pavlikowski had appointed him co-counsel.

In the end, Robert Dyer pleaded no contest to theft and possessing stolen property, records show. He was sentenced in June 2004 to two to five years in prison.

The sentence was in addition to a 1- to 2 3/4 -year sentence for witness tampering.

His wife remains a fugitive.

Hastings did not respond to written questions about the case.


Stephen L. Huffaker

Chapter 1

Casino connections

Downtown casinos and the city of Las Vegas sued Carol Pappas and her sons.

A 63-year-old widow, she and her two boys owned a corner strip mall. A casino consortium, with the city on its side, wanted the land to build a parking garage as part of downtown redevelopment. The suit claimed eminent domain.

It went to Huffaker’s court in November 1993. He let the consortium bulldoze the property.

Pappas filed a counterclaim saying the city and the casinos conspired to take her property improperly and to violate her civil rights.

Huffaker presided over the high-visibility case for 21 months. His 1994-95 financial disclosure statements showed only that he was receiving a “small interest on stock dividends.” But in August 1995, he revealed in court that he held 12,000 shares of Elsinore Corp., owner of the downtown Four Queens hotel and casino, which had a major stake in the redevelopment.

Grant Gerber, an attorney for Pappas, told Huffaker in a letter: “For you to preside over this case violates [judicial] canons.” Two days later, Huffaker withdrew.

But he had been issuing rulings for 21 months.

The attorneys for Pappas asked for dismissal of all Huffaker rulings.

Request denied.

They asked to question Huffaker under oath: Did he have other conflicts of interest in the case?

Request denied.

Their concern about other possible conflicts appeared to be valid. A nonprofit foundation sponsored by Mirage Resorts Inc., which owned the Golden Nugget, another casino involved in downtown redevelopment, had given Huffaker’s son, Stephen, an $11,000 scholarship to Yale in 1994, according to court records.

Casino mogul Stephen A. Wynn owned Mirage at the time.

The year the scholarship was awarded, The Times found, Huffaker was presiding over the Pappas case and four other lawsuits involving the Golden Nugget.

A recent search of court records found no statement from Huffaker that he publicly disclosed the scholarship at the time. Nor did he reveal it in his annual financial disclosure statements.

The Pappas lawsuit ended in August 2004 when the city settled for $4.5 million, according to court records and an interview with Gerber.

Huffaker did reveal his son’s scholarship in 1994 in another case involving Wynn’s casino interests. Moreover, in his financial disclosure statements for 1994 through 1997, he said his son had worked at Wynn’s Treasure Island hotel and casino, his Shadow Creek golf club and at the law firm of Schreck, Jones, Bernhard, Woloson & Godfrey, which represented Wynn’s interests.

At various times during those years, Huffaker presided over five lawsuits involving the law firm or Wynn’s casinos, according to court records.

In a sixth case, Huffaker presided for nearly a year before Schreck attorney James R. Chamberlain reminded him that his “son is employed as a runner for the summer months at the firm,” court minutes show.

The opposing lawyer had no objection, according to the minutes.

In a seventh case, a lawyer objected to a similar conflict. The lawyer represented Joseph Canterino, then a 40-year-old New York dockworker who sued the Mirage. Canterino said he suffered mental illness after being savagely beaten and robbed of $70,000 while he stayed at the hotel in 1992.

Canterino blamed lax security.

A jury awarded Canterino $5.8 million, court records show.

Huffaker called the judgment “absolutely shocking,” according to the records.

He reduced it to $1.5 million.

In an affidavit, Canterino’s lawyer, Eckley M. Keach, said Huffaker had failed during the case to disclose Stephen Huffaker’s scholarship.

Huffaker replied that he had told Keach and a Mirage attorney about the scholarship.

Both said they could recall no such disclosure.

In 2002, the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

By then, Huffaker had announced he would not seek reelection, and the Supreme Court commissioned him as a senior judge.

He was given written questions about these cases by The Times, but he did not respond.

Huffaker received the senior judge commission despite being one of the most avoided state judges in Las Vegas.

During 2001, for instance, the year before he was appointed, attorneys dodged his courtroom 163 times by exercising one-time peremptory challenges to remove a judge without explanation, court records show.

Now, as a senior judge, Huffaker is immune from peremptory challenge.


Times researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.