Opinion: Regulating morality?
Should state gaming-control officials meddle in nightclubs?
Thu, Aug 6, 2009 (midnight)
Interesting things happen in nightclubs. Not the most interesting is that clubbers drink, frequently get drunk and often misbehave. Pack a dark room with barely dressed women, horny men and throbbing music, add alcohol, and the results are predictable. Someone will lift a shirt or a skirt, someone will vomit in the urinal, someone underage will slip in, someone will get high in the toilet stall. To varying degrees, club security does what it can to manage behavior while balancing the environment on the very edge of madness. Vegas clubs are typical of those one might find anywhere.
Except for one thing. What Nevada has that other places do not is the five-member Nevada Gaming Commission, the three-member Gaming Control Board and 500 associated employees. Formed in 1955 by legislative act, and operating based upon regulations adopted in 1959, the governor-appointed commission and board members are charged, essentially, with keeping the federal government off Nevada’s ass by overseeing intense state scrutiny of Nevada’s cash cow, the gambling industry. Not empowered with oversight of nongaming nightclub operations (city and county licensing does that), they use a list of 30 regulations aimed mostly at ensuring that the business operations of gambling establishments are open, honest and professional.
Already, we’re walking a hard-to-define line. It’s one thing to tell a chemical company it cannot dump untreated wastewater in the Colorado River; it’s quite another to expect a few regulations to legitimize an activity that caters exclusively to what many consider the darker side of human nature.
Still, despite (or, rather, because of) the fact that many gamblers associated with the early development of Las Vegas could never stand muster against modern regulations, the system has worked reasonably well at instilling confidence that Nevada is not running off the rails. The odds at picking nine numbers in keno might be 1.38 million-to-1, but that’s probably better than trying to land a dime on the plates at the state fair. And at least keno odds are required to be posted in the casino.
That Nevada has found a way to structure the licensing and operation of casinos so that they are as legitimate as can be expected is a good thing. Where things get weird lies in Nevada Gaming Regulation 5.011:
“The board and the commission deem any activity on the part of any licensee, his agents or employees, that is inimical to the public health, safety, morals, good order and general welfare of the people of the State of Nevada, or that would reflect or tend to reflect discredit upon the State of Nevada or the gaming industry, to be an unsuitable method of operation and shall be grounds for disciplinary action.”
In what has come to be known as the “moral turpitude clause,” Nevada applies a subjective moral umbrella via an agency whose members are not accountable to the electorate, in a regulation aimed at, of all things, gambling. This is like a madam telling a professional hooker she cannot wear 6-inch heels to work because, frankly, they are a little slutty.
If you find it hard to wrap your head around the idea of conduct contrary to the community standards of good morals in a city reliant almost wholly on the bad behavior of others for its success, you are not alone. This is why some playfully suggestive billboard ads got the Hard Rock Hotel into trouble some years back. What we all discovered is that the subjectivity of Regulation 5.011 means, essentially, that while Las Vegas can make money off horny, inebriated gamblers, we can’t lure them with advertising that says, “Hey! Horny Gamblers! Come (to the Hard Rock) to Drink and Gamble and Misbehave!” because, well, that would be immoral.
Many have no problem with this. Even those who find the clause troubling see a direct line between the licensee, the advertising in question and Regulation 5.011. It’s a stretch, but nothing like what has been happening more recently, particularly in the case of Privé. Setting aside concern over the “moral clause” (and that’s a big set-aside) and considering the situation in context, clearly any nightclub where DJs and slot machines share an electrical outlet would be subject to oversight by state gaming authorities.
- Related Stories
- What now? The post-Privé scandal (08/06/09)
- What they're saying about the Privé scandal (08/06/09)
- Privé appeal postponed until August 18 (08/04/09)
- Former Privé security director speaks out against allegations (7/28/09)
- Privé denied temporary license (7/28/09)
- Inside the last night at Prive (07/28/09)
- State and county agencies react to the Prive issue (7/26/09)
- Prive liquor license denied, business to cease (7/23/09)
- Prive bad rap a wrap? (7/13/09)
- Planet Hollywood fined for tenant's behavior (7/16/09)
Privé, however, was an independently owned and managed nongaming business, albeit one that leased space on the property of the licensed Planet Hollywood. According to reports, Privé allegedly permitted or encouraged behavior that was both illegal and (here’s that word again) immoral. That raised the attention of the Gaming Control Board. As they could not get directly at Privé (though the county did by denying a permanent liquor license), the board did the next best thing, using 5.011’s “any activity” umbrella to levy a fine of up to $750,000 against Planet Hollywood for morally discrediting the state’s gaming operations.
What is central is this: Can and should gaming authorities use their muscle to leverage licensed establishments into being responsible for the practices of independent tenants, particularly when that leverage is based on something as slippery as a moral code? If employees openly do drugs in the break room at a Forum Shops restaurant, for instance, will Caesars be considered somehow responsible? If so, how can we be certain that such leverage is applied fairly and equally to all licensees and all situations? Further, how can we expect these gaming companies to intercede in not just illegal activity (which they should), but also the moral behavior of every patron and employee in every corner of massive shopping, dining and entertainment complexes, only a small portion of which is dedicated to licensed gambling?
Regulating the mechanics of gambling for the purpose of giving players a sporting chance at winning is justifiable. So is regulating the licensing and operation of nightclubs. But in Nevada, protecting the regulated immorality of a profitable casino floor somehow determines what constitutes the actionable immorality of a nightclubbing scene. They know it when they see it, and when they see it, they will fine someone—anyone—to get it to stop.
Interesting things happen in the nightlife industry. And, as it happens, interesting things happen in Nevada government. But as many have pointed out, just because they happen doesn’t make them right.