King of the Strip
How Bob Faiss, a soft-spoken farm boy from Illinois, became one of the top gaming attorneys in the world
Published in 2007 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine
on June 21, 2007
Updated on June 11, 2009
In the annals of deals sealed on golf courses, this one is a doozy. Bob Faiss, a functionary in the tourism arm of the U.S. Commerce Department, was chipping his way through some links in the Washington, D.C., area with his mentor and former boss, one-time Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer.
“How are we doing on that law school business?” Sawyer inquired.
“Oh, Governor, you know, I really don’t think that’s for me,” said Faiss, then in his mid-30s. “I’ve decided I’m going to get a master’s degree in journalism.”
“Oh. Well, I’m really disappointed,” Sawyer replied. “I thought maybe you’d get your law degree and come back and practice law with us in Nevada.”
Faiss barely hesitated. “OK, I’ll go to law school.”
So began one of the most important legal careers in the history of Las Vegas. Faiss had no plans to be an attorney, but he idolized Sawyer to the point where if the only thing keeping him from working with the man again was obtaining a law degree, then Faiss would put himself through American University’s night program in three years to do just that.
Upon Faiss’ return to Nevada in 1973, he joined Lionel Sawyer & Collins as 16th on the letterhead. Now he leads a gaming law division of 16 attorneys, and his work is one of the firm’s most significant calling cards.
“He wasn’t a firm founder, but he is, perhaps, the firm’s foundation,” says Nevada historian Michael Green, who wrote the foreword to Faiss’ oral history, Gaming Regulation and Gaming Law in Nevada. “Lionel Sawyer & Collins does a lot of different work and has a deservedly great reputation for it, but because Sawyer and Faiss were so instrumental in the history of gaming regulation in Nevada, some people don’t realize what else the firm does.”
From tax laws to the applications of new technology, from the rights of a casino to ban certain players to its ability to chase down debtors in other states, Faiss, 72, has “been involved in pretty much every single aspect of how gaming law is applied,” says Richard Morgan, former dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ William S. Boyd School of Law. It was Faiss, for instance, who wrote the 1991 statute that requires gaming companies seeking unrestricted gaming licenses to build mammoth resorts with a variety of entertainment offerings, bringing the new millennium Strip into being.
“A gaming license is something granted on behalf of the people, so we felt that in order to get it, you should be giving something back to the public,” says Faiss. “You should be making a certain investment, provide a certain number of jobs, develop certain facilities. You shouldn’t just be allowed to feed on the market.”
Faiss’ demure, quiet style sticks out amidst the bright screaming lights of Vegas, but that low-key approach is often his best tactic. This March, in one of the most challenging Gaming Control Board hearings he’s faced, the attorney’s chief client, MGM Mirage, sought the right to enter a partnership in the growing gambling destination of Macau, China. Their Chinese partner was businesswoman Pansy Ho, who has significant ties to her controversial and allegedly mob-involved father, Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho. Designed by Faiss and others to drum underworld influences out of the gaming industry, the hearing was to show that the MGM Mirage is free of external influences and that Pansy Ho is an independent player.
During that five and a half-hour hearing—which ended with the Nevada Gaming Control Board unanimously recommending Ho to the Gaming Commission for final approval—Faiss sat impassively and let the key players, MGM Mirage CEO J. Terrence Lanni and Ho, do the talking. Ho, in particular, withstood withering, intensive quizzing about her relationship with her father, never once provoking an interjection from Faiss or the other attorneys.
“You don’t want to be in a position in which you have to make an emotional, theatrical presentation to the commission,” explains Faiss, noting that most of his work is done in advance, preparing the witnesses and making sure he has the legal citations needed to persuade the regulators. “That’s one of the differences with gaming licenses versus other sorts of legal work. You have the obligation to make sure any information is brought out and dealt with.”
“I wouldn’t want to go before any commission without Bob Faiss,” says MGM Mirage’s Lanni. “He knows the law backward and forward because he wrote most of it, and the regulators respect him significantly and he’s very respectful of them. It’s just a pleasure to be around him.”
Several commissioners have become close friends with Faiss over the years, a coziness that could provoke concern. Yet former Gaming Control Board member and FBI special agent Bobby Siller explains that, in matters of complex legal issues, it is difficult to ignore Faiss since he was so pivotal in writing the statutes. Plus, he has a history of suggesting law that could be construed as expensive or cumbersome for his own clients. In fact, Siller says, Faiss’ efforts to change the law often begin with visits to commissioners to see if they think it’s a good idea.
“Let me put it this way: you have to appreciate where I came from. I worked with U.S. attorneys and district attorneys and defense attorneys and it was always something of an adversarial relationship. So I’m not coming from a position where I’m rosy with attorneys,” says Siller. “When I say it was a pleasure working with Bob Faiss, that’s really big for me to say. I always felt his work was in the best interest of everyone.”
In retrospect, it seems fated. Faiss was a pivotal player in Sawyer’s administration in the early 1960s, when the Nevada Gaming Commission was established. The state’s stringent gaming regulations came into existence mostly as a way to quell threats of interference from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
After serving as the youngest city editor ever for the Las Vegas Sun, Faiss joined the Sawyer team at age 26 as a public information officer. He moved up in 1961 to be the assistant executive secretary for the Gaming Commission. In that role, he wrote the first manual on gaming regulations before he left in 1963 to become Sawyer’s chief of staff.
When Sawyer lost a re-election bid in 1966, Faiss took a job in President Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, helping to implement Johnson’s War on Poverty. He moved into the White House as an assistant to Johnson’s chief of staff, Jim Jones. After Johnson left office, Faiss worked for the Commerce Department. Then he and Sawyer played that fateful game of golf.
Faiss dabbled in civil litigation and administrative law after joining Lionel Sawyer & Collins, but it was quickly understood that his value to the law firm came from his gaming background. “You practice the law your clients allow you to practice,” he says. “Our clients wanted me doing this.”
But Faiss, who grew up in a southern Illinois farming and coal community, has little personal interest in gambling beyond the occasional friendly sports bet. And, although his office is decorated with king-of-hearts bookends and toy slot machines, he lives in Boulder City, a small, quiet burg about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas.
“It’s strange that a world-class gaming attorney would live in the only town in the state where gaming is illegal,” says his wife, Linda Faiss, who runs a public relations firm and was a longtime friend to Faiss and godparent to one of his three children before they married in 1991. “Bob is a small-town boy at heart.”
One of Faiss’ most endearing and maddening qualities is his reluctance to take credit for his own accomplishments and his insistence that he was but one cog in the wheel. Asked about the success in the Ho case, for example, he says: “By the time you get through any case, there’s been so much involvement by so many people that it would be foolhardy for me to take any credit for the results.”
It’s not to say he minds a little attention or praise. He’s clearly honored to have been named among the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America by The National Law Journal, and he did enjoy the mild celebrity that went along with the public access talk show he hosted in the late 1990s and early 2000s called Hi, Bob!, a reference to how Bob Newhart was greeted on Newhart.
At the same time, he has trouble thinking of a legal disappointment. “I can’t think of a case that was resolved in an unsatisfactory way,” he says. “Every one I lost on a state level that was appealable we appealed to the court and I demonstrated to the court that there was additional evidence to resolve it in a satisfactory basis.”
As pleasing as those victories are, it’s his work as an adjunct professor at the Boyd School of Law that is, these days, his most satisfying. He is now behind a movement to create a gaming law certificate, more evidence of his influence on the practice area he pioneered.
“When I began, there was no such thing as a gaming attorney,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Back then, if you were a gaming attorney, they thought you handled fish and game law. Now look at where it is.”