Police officials upset by DA’s failure to prosecute McDonald

Wed, Oct 18, 2000 (11:09 a.m.)

District Attorney Stewart Bell isn't likely to lose his good friend, Sheriff Jerry Keller, over the decision not to prosecute City Councilman Michael McDonald.

"He's still my favorite district attorney," said Keller, who pushed for McDonald's prosecution. "We give him 35,000 to 40,000 cases a year."

But clearly, Metro's top brass and the intelligence detectives who investigated McDonald on charges of abusing the public's trust are not pleased with Bell.

"Nobody's happy," one ranking police official said. "A lot of work was put into this."

The feeling at the high command is that McDonald must be held accountable somewhere, maybe on the ethics front.

"It's a matter of public trust in our elective process," said Deputy Chief Mike Hawkins," who oversaw the McDonald inquiry. "People feel a person with that responsibility needs to be held to a higher standard."

Bell took the criticism from within the police department in stride, saying that he and the sheriff never let their jobs get in the way of their friendship.

"He did his job, and I did mine," Bell said. "We each respect the professionalism of the other."

But this week Keller, even though Bell put the kibosh on his criminal case, went to the unusual step of telling reporters that police had reason to arrest McDonald on criminal misconduct charges.

"We felt very comfortable that probable cause was established by the facts we gathered," Keller said. "We thought it was criminal, beyond the scope of ethics."

McDonald's lawyer, Richard Wright, said those words were aimed more at McDonald, a critic of the police department, than the district attorney.

"I believe Metro knew there was no criminal offense whatsoever, and they knew, if they had half a brain, that the district attorney would deny the case," Wright said. "However, to cause McDonald hardship and embarrassment, they publicly announced that they believed a crime had been committed. "This is payback to McDonald," Wright said. "He had the audacity to call for an audit of the police department and its intelligence section. And who do you think conducted this investigation? The intelligence section."

Wright said he has no faith in the department's opinions.

"This is the same police department that insisted that Christopher Brady, a police officer, did not commit a crime by participating in a drive-by shooting," Wright said. "It took the federal government to put him in jail for an obvious crime."

The sheriff's trashing of McDonald stemmed from two separate investigations into the councilman's actions involving his friend, topless nightclub owner Rick Rizzolo, who has been linked to a local suspected mob figure in the past.

Police had probed McDonald's role in a bid to thwart efforts by political consultant Sig Rogich to rezone city land reportedly so it could be converted into a topless nightclub that would compete with Rizzolo's Crazy Horse Too.

McDonald also had come under scrutiny for allegedly trying to broker the sale of the troubled Las Vegas Sport Park for majority owner Larry Scheffler, who had given McDonald a $52,000-a-year job at his other business, Las Vegas Color Graphics. One of the sports park's potential investors was said to be Rizzolo.

Though Keller felt there was evidence to arrest McDonald, Bell concluded that there wasn't enough to prove in court that the councilman had committed crimes.

"When you apply the facts to the law in this case, there are elements that are not provable by the standard beyond a reasonable doubt," Bell said.

Besides himself, Bell had three of his top deputies, Ron Bloxham, Chris Owens and Valerie Adair, review the police findings. All three reached the same conclusion as the district attorney.

"If you file a case before you have enough evidence, or if you don't have enough evidence, all you're doing is expending energy unsuccessfully," Bell said.

As it turned out, police had a difficult time with the probes.

"We found that some employees at City Hall were extremely apprehensive in talking to us," Hawkins confirmed.

Hawkins would not elaborate, but police sources said some city employees were afraid to cooperate with detectives.

"They indicated that they were in fear for their jobs and their personal safety," a ranking police source said.

Both McDonald and his top political aide, Rick Henry, have permits to carry concealed weapons, the source said.

"That can be intimidating to a witness," the source added. "People were afraid about having to testify if there was a prosecution."

McDonald and Henry, sources said, have been seen carrying weapons at City Hall. McDonald reportedly keeps his handgun in his back pocket, and Henry wears his in a shoulder holster.

Police, meanwhile, eagerly turned over their criminal file on McDonald to the Las Vegas Ethics Review Board Tuesday after County Counsel Mary-Anne Miller said in a written opinion that the file is public.

For McDonald that's going to mean more intense public scrutiny in the weeks ahead.

Already, the controversy swirling around McDonald is slowing down City Hall.

"Whenever you can't pay full attention to doing your job and you are distracted, it causes a cloud to hover over the 10th Floor," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who originally asked police to probe McDonald.

"I hope it goes away quickly. We need to be focusing on taking care of city business."

Then there are the rumblings that the FBI is looking at McDonald and his associations.

Political observers marvel at the way McDonald continues to stay close to Rizzolo while under the microscope.

"He's not trying to distance himself at all," one seasoned political strategist said. "He's not being very smart."

Over the years, Rizzolo has become a force within the topless nightclub industry that traditionally has been prone to hidden influence from organized crime. The FBI long has maintained vigilance over the industry.

Through it all, Rizzolo has managed to maintain a clean image and become active in civic affairs. He has been a regular contributor to local charities and political campaigns.

But his past has not been spotless, primarily because of his ties to Joseph Cusumano, a reputed associate of slain Chicago mob kingpin Anthony Spilotro.

Cusumano, listed in Nevada's Black Book of "undesirables" banned from casinos, was convicted in 1987 of trying to divert several hundred thousand dollars from the Culinary Union's insurance fund.

In a December letter to the Sun, Rizzolo acknowledged that Cusumano, who has managed to stay clear of the law since his conviction, was a "close friend for many years."

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