It was a risk so large that Don Campbell now marvels at the confidence with which he took it. The fate of Nevada's governorship hung in the balance. Campbell had to make the decision that would either save Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons' gubernatorial campaign or, quite possibly, send him to jail.
Gibbons was coasting toward an easy victory in October 2006 when a waitress accused him of violently cornering her in a parking garage and demanding sex. The married, five-term congressman from Reno acknowledged walking with the woman but denied ever entering the garage with her. She insisted she saw a parking lot camera while the alleged incident occurred.
With days until the election, Campbell went to court to demand the release of 16 hours of parking garage surveillance. He took a gamble and released the tapes to the media—before he even had a chance to review them. "My client told me he wasn't on them and I believed him," says Campbell, 55. "Yeah, it was a risk. But I believed him. And it worked, didn't it?"
It did indeed. Now-Gov. Gibbons survived the crisis thanks in large part to Campbell.
"He always believed in his product," says retired prosecutor Bill Koot, Campbell's boss when he joined the Clark County district attorney's office upon his graduation from the Creighton School of Law in 1978. "He is very sincere, very honest, very straight. This is not a phony guy."
Another governor agrees. "[He is] one of the most accomplished lawyers in the state," says former governor Bob Miller, who was the district attorney when Campbell began at Clark County. "Don is not a flamboyant person who's out there for self-aggrandizement. He has a reputation built on his accomplishments and his pursuit of justice as he sees it, not upon public relations."
Campbell grew up watching Robert Reed and E.G. Marshall mount the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in the opening sequence of The Defenders. He was smitten with the profession by age 8. He soon discovered he could walk a few blocks to the local courthouse and watch trials, which he did during the summer.
"It must've seemed strange to see a kid there, but I just found it completely fascinating," says Campbell in a calm, low-key voice that contrasts with the earnest, muscular tone he's known for in court. "But I really did learn a lot about presenting cases and standing in front of a jury; about how the process works."
He also discovered at a young age how the Vegas casino industry worked. Campbell spent his high school and college years working a range of resort-related jobs, from card dealer to short-order cook. His father was executive director of the Nevada Resort Association from 1968 until his death in 1983.
The '70s and '80s were heady times in Las Vegas—an era when the police, the FBI and prosecutors were dismantling organized crime within Sin City's gambling scene. As a young prosecutor in the district attorney's office until 1981 and then as the Las Vegas-based chief of the Organized Crime and Drug Task Force for the U.S. Department of Justice from 1982 to 1986, Campbell helped convict a who's who of mob figures, including Frank Cullotta and members of the Medellin cocaine cartel.
Koot knew Campbell was a prodigy from the start. "When I saw him doing his very first trial, I thought he was the best trial attorney I had ever seen," he says. "He did his closing arguments without looking at any notes. He didn't stutter, used correct English. He's just a natural."
Most notable were the triumphs over members of the Hole in the Wall gang, a burglary ring known for gaining entry to buildings by drilling through the exterior walls and ceilings in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One case was so incendiary that his then-girlfriend (now wife) Daphne was intercepted at the airport by police and taken to a safe location because of threats against her and plans to plant grenades in Campbell's apartment.
It's commonplace nowadays to hear locals and tourists alike speak with nostalgia of Vegas' mob era and claim that the city operated better then. Campbell becomes irate at the notion. "That is an absolute fallacy," he says. "To suggest that a criminal syndicate could somehow fashion and run a city in a more even-handed and efficient manner than the elected public officials is just maddening. These guys were brutal murderers. They were killers. To suggest that they should somehow be romanticized as something that they were not is very offensive to me."
In 1986, Campbell founded the now-four-lawyer firm of Campbell & Williams. Since then he's handled civil matters for the likes of Donald Trump and Andre Agassi. The linchpin of Campbell's practice, though, has been the huge personal injury awards he's scored against corporations such as Exxon Mobil, Chrysler, General Motors, Yamaha and Wal-Mart. Wins include $10 million for a Kansas City tourist beaten at a Vegas strip club after he allegedly skipped out on an $80 bill; $17 million from Dollar Rent A Car for a dental school professor whose spine was broken in an auto collision with a Dollar employee; and $7.5 million from the Boy Scouts of America for a man who lost his foot in a traffic crash with a BSA volunteer.
"The only thing that stands between ordinary citizens and major corporations that want to crush them is a trial lawyer and the fear of punitive damages," says Campbell. "You take that away and they're just going to steamroll the public because they can get away with it. It is a really cautionary tale for them. That's what scares them. That's what gives them real religion. You bet!"
Example: Deloris Beckwith, a 24-year employee and head of the housewares department at a Vegas Dillard's department store, injured her back moving a heavy table on the job. Her doctor told her to stay home for two weeks but her boss demanded she return after one. She did not and was demoted to an entry-level job upon her return. Campbell took her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in 2000, upheld the Nevada Supreme Court's $4.2 million judgment against Dillard's.
"He doesn't let anything pass you by," says Beckwith, who has remained so close to Campbell that Campbell's secretary knows her phone number by heart. "When you leave the courtroom, he remembers every single thing that went on. ... I would sit next to his assistant and say, ‘How does he remember this?' I used to go home and tell the kids, ‘I can't believe how smart this man is.'"
Another favorite case of Campbell's involved a lawsuit against
an appliance store owner who refused to honor the warranty on a
refrigerator bought by a casino-hotel chambermaid. Michael Gaughan, the owner of the casino that employed the woman, hired Campbell for the case. "I told him, ‘Michael, it'll cost you more to hire me by 10 times than to go out and buy this woman a new fridge,'" Campbell recalls. "But he said, ‘No, no, no, no. I want you to sue them. I'm already buying her a new fridge. I want you to sue him so they don't do this to any of my other employees. And let 'em know why I'm doing this. I want you to make the appliance center miserable.' And I did!"
Campbell is also the attorney for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and for local journalists involved in libel and open-records cases. He represented George Knapp, an investigative reporter and Las Vegas CityLife columnist who was sued for saying a woman had a mouth like a jack-o-lantern. "Campbell wrote a brief that should reside in an art museum somewhere. It was devastating, brutal and absolutely hilarious," says Knapp. "Damn, it was a masterful piece of writing. As sarcastic as William F. Buckley, with a dash of Jonathan Swift, maybe Clarence Darrow. ... If you need someone to carve the Thanksgiving turkey, put Don on your list. He conducted a deposition with the plaintiff that was painful to even read in a transcript."
Earlier this year, Campbell successfully defended MSNBC's right to exclude presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich from a January 2008 debate in Las Vegas. A district court judge sided with Kucinich the day before the debate. The next morning Campbell took his case to the Nevada Supreme Court and insisted that the district court lacked jurisdiction over such a matter and that the First Amendment does not allow the state to force the media to cover a candidate it doesn't wish to cover. He won, 7-0, and the debate occurred with only Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards on the stage.
"[Kucinich] had no right to be in the debate," Campbell says. "He was [just] an invitee. You can't compel the press, particularly the press distributed through cable, to demand that you cover a particular person or issue. The press is hopefully responsible. Sometimes it isn't; in most cases it is. The suggestion that they have to dedicate certain resources just because you happen to be running for president—[it's] a call they get to make, not the court. If you don't like that call, you don't have to watch MSNBC."
It's true that Campbell has a well-known penchant for designer clothes; he owns 50 suits and once earned the nickname "Gucci" from an undercover narcotics cop. "Yeah, I like nice clothes," says Campbell. "I detest the fact that some of the lawyers come into the courtroom looking like they rolled out of bed. Serious business is conducted in the courtroom and you should look like a serious person. You should not look like you just got off a truck that broke down in Pahrump."
Still, he is hardly a part of the Vegas scene. He rises at 4:30 a.m. to exercise and remains at work until 6:30 p.m. He and his wife are empty-nesters: one son is training to be a U.S. Marine in San Diego and the other is attending Creighton School of Law in the fall. The couple relaxes by watching cable news and taking weekend trips to Sun Valley, Idaho.
"I'm kind of a boring guy," Campbell says. "I get to do every day what my dream was. There's not a lot of people who can say that. I'm probably at the apex of my career right now, and it's all I ever really wanted to do. I've never thought about retiring from this. Ever."