Luke Brugnara Makes His Point

All the city's most bombastic commercial landlord wants is a San Francisco-themed casino in Las Vegas ... or absolute misery for anyone who gets in his way

"That's like me right now."

Luke Brugnara's office is on the top floor of his building at 351 California. There is no mistaking that it's his building: His name is in giant letters on all three exposed sides of the property.

A quick glance around his surprisingly snug office reveals some interesting things. Perhaps the most intrusive is the head of an 800-pound wild boar, which Brugnara stares at as he sits behind his dark wooden desk in his customary business uniform (red Eddie Bauer long-sleeved polo shirt, blue Nautica sweat pants, white New Balance tennis shoes). The desk is clear except for two simple red phones that, one half expects, will ring asking for nuclear launch codes.

Next to the boar's head are a few newspaper clippings, relics from Brugnara's mid-'90s property-buying spree. The visual centerpiece of the room -- after the boar's head, anyway -- is a large aerial map of Las Vegas. Brugnara's slice of the Vegas Strip is outlined in thick red. It is prime real estate these days, one of only 14 corner properties on the legendary drive, and thanks to projects sprouting up around it -- including the latest from casino magnate Steve Wynn -- the $31 million Brugnara paid for the shuttered Silver City casino and adjacent property seems cheap.

Looking at the map, Brugnara's eyes take on a dreamer's glaze as his mind drifts to the San Francisco- themed casino and resort he'd like his 18-acre plot to become.

"You'd enter over the Golden Gate Bridge with water running under you," he says. "You'd have a cable car going up through a mock skyline, past Victorian homes and everything. I mean, it would be like one of those things you'd see in a snow globe, a condensed version of the entire city, with Coit Tower and the [Transamerica] Pyramid if we could get rights on the Pyramid. ... You could have a Chinatown full of slot machines. You could have the Castro District ...."

As a business plan, the idea has promise: The latest craze in Las Vegas casino building is city themes, and resorts based on New York, Paris, and Venice have been wildly successful. But after the catastrophe that accompanied Brugnara's first stab at gaining a gaming license, the vision seems almost -- well -- hallucinatory. "The best thing to do if you really, really want a license," he says, "is conform. And maybe I will. You know, "Yes, ma'am,' "No, ma'am.' "Sure I'll grab my ankles, sir.' "Let me go get my kneepads.' But they could still say, "Get the fuck out of here,' and that's what I don't want to go through."

Say what you want about Brugnara; he doesn't grab his ankles for anyone, and certainly not Nevada's Gaming Control Board.

His gaming license hearing last March exposed him to a string of indignities. The day before the hearing was to begin, he read in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he was unlikely to be granted a gaming license because he hadn't filled his application out properly. When the hearing started, he was questioned about all the alleged threats and legal run-ins that dot his past -- and that he had failed to note in his application. This is not to mention his accounting practices, which board investigators questioned.

According to the Review-Journal, Brugnara spent much of the meeting screaming at the board.

"I find it ludicrous that (the Control Board) can judge me," Brugnara yelled at one point.

"I've done more in one year than anyone in this room can dream of doing. ... It's so predictable what you'll do. The people on the Strip wind you up," he shouted, adding a winding flick of his wrists for effect.

"This was a kangaroo court from day one. These bureaucrats are jealous and envious of me," he boomed to reporters as his lawyers walked out on him, shaking their heads.

The gaming board's rejection of Brugnara's application was not ambiguous.

One board member declared: "I don't think you even come close to having suitability to have a license. In fact, I don't think I could even support you for a work permit."

Brugnara calls his experience last year before the Gaming Control Board "horrific." So of course he's reapplying this year, not so much because he thinks he'll win -- even Brugnara, who takes a decidedly optimistic view of the potential of his endeavors, acknowledges his chances are just "50-50"-- but because he has a point to make. At the moment, he's talking to a lawyer who is very good at making points, antitrust attorney Joe Alioto.

Alioto, of course, is one of the best-known antitrust lawyers in the country. During the course of his distinguished career, he has represented plaintiffs who have sued the National Football League, Texaco Corp., TicketMaster, A&P grocery stores, and Las Vegas casino magnate Howard Hughes on antitrust grounds. Alioto made his biggest impression on Brugnara, though, during an antitrust lawsuit that real estate magnate and political player Clint Reilly filed against the Hearst Corp. over its acquisition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The suit, handled for Reilly by Alioto, was viewed by some (including Brugnara) as having been influenced by the former campaign consultant's contentious history with the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. (Reilly once got into a newsroom brawl with former Examinerand current Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein; Reilly reportedly received a broken ankle and, later, a significant monetary settlement.)

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