Sunday, January 25, 2004

Doug, Dinsdale and Harry

Us relative newbies (we're a few weeks away from being four-year Vegas residents) typically get reminders of what Las Vegas used to be whenever one of the old-timers passes on. This week, Harry Claiborne, former U.S. District Court judge and perhaps the most legendary criminal defense lawyer in Nevada history, took his own life at age 86. He had been suffering from Alzheimer's and liver cancer. One's not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but the praise and reverence that were slathered over this man after his passing was way overboard, when you consider what was Claiborne's true claim to fame: In 1986, as a federal judge, Claiborne was impeached by the U.S. House, convicted by the Senate, and removed from office because he accepted bribes ... from the owner of a whorehouse.

Now it takes some doing to be removed from office by Congress, and indeed, Claiborne was the first judge in U.S. history to be convicted of crimes while sitting on the federal bench. Yet Claiborne had a life after prison. Because after he served 17 months for income-tax evasion (the bribery charges resulted in a hung jury), the Nevada Supreme Court reinstated him to the bar and let him continue to practice law. The 163-page decision read like a defense brief for Claiborne and an indictment of his impeachment and criminal conviction. (As an R-J editorial stated, the court's decision to let impeached judge and convicted felon Claiborne again practice law "establish[ed] a standard probably unique in the nation.") Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman practiced law with Claiborne for years and defended the judge at his tax-evasion trial.

Perhaps more remarkably, though, the Las Vegas Sun (whose founding family, the Greenspuns, was tight with Claiborne through the years) published a glowing editorial/epitaph on the felon ... and editor Brian Greenspun dedicated not one but two columns to the man, the first titled (I kid you not) "A pillar of real Las Vegas."In Greenspunland, Claiborne was railroaded by overzealous federal cops. But while on the federal bench, he accepted bribes ... from a pimp.

All the glowing accounts of Claiborne call to mind Monty Python's "Piranha Brothers" sketch. In the routine the Piranhas, Doug and Dinsdale, were gangsters who terrorized the South of England with a combination of violence and sarcasm. (The Piranhas were loosely based on the real-life British gangster brothers the Krays.) And the vicious gangsters still merit praise, even from the people they victimized. An interviewer questions Stig O'Tracy, who got on the wrong side of the Piranhas.

Interviewer: I've been told Dinsdale Piranha nailed your head to the floor.

Stig: No. Never. He was a smashing bloke. He used to buy his mother flowers and that. He was like a brother to me.

Interviewer: But the police have film of Dinsdale actually nailing your head to the floor.

Stig: (pause) Oh yeah, he did that.

For some reason, newcomers to the state are expected to hear stories about the "colorful" criminals who populated Nevada's political and business establishment in years past and just accept the fact that things were done differently here. Sorry, folks. I ain't buying.