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Dead mobster gives new insights on casino

Newly discovered, decades-old diaries from the Founding Father of America's casino industry give us new insights into America's love-hate relationship with gambling, and help explain why American Indian casinos have generated so much opposition.

The diaries were written by mobster Meyer Lansky, who died in 1983 at age 81. Lansky was kingpin of New York City's illegal gambling rackets in the 1930s and '40s, and went on to bankroll casino developments by fellow gangster Bugsy Siegel in Las Vegas. Lansky also developed gambling operations in Florida, New Orleans, pre-Castro Cuba and the Bahamas.

Lansky's granddaughter, Cynthia Duncan, and I are friends. She knew that I had just finished writing a novel about mobsters who seek respectability, and recently invited me into her Miami Beach home to show me Lansky's diaries, which had never been made public or even seen by law enforcement.

Lansky, of course, was quite different from American Indian entrepreneurs operating casinos today. While Lansky was an outlaw running illegal gambling, sovereign Indian nations today operate casinos legally and free of criminal influences. In fact, U.S. Justice Department official Bruce Ohr testified before a U.S. Senate committee July 25 there is "no evidence of a systematic infiltration of Indian gaming by elements of organized crime."

And Lansky had little or no acquaintance with American Indians. The Russian Jewish immigrant ? whose original name was Maier Suchowljansky ? arrived with his parents on New York's Lower East Side in 1911. He is believed to have begun a life of crime around 1918.

But Lansky's central thesis about gambling ? that it is socially acceptable when run by leading white Anglo-Saxon Protestants but demonized when run by minority groups ? applies just as well to American Indians today as it did to Jews, Italians and other minorities who ran illegal gambling rackets with Lansky.

As everyone familiar with the rise of legal American Indian casinos knows, some of the harshest opponents of Indian gaming never raised any objections when millionaire non-Indians like Howard Hughes, Kirk Kerkorian, Donald Trump, Steve Wynn, and the owners of giant hotel chains began running casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

In fact, some people now denouncing the success of American Indian gaming were criticizing Native Americans just a few years ago as lazy parasites on society who were unwilling and unable to support themselves. But instead of praising American Indians for achieving success with their new casino industry, these critics now condemn them for taking advantage of their "special privileges" to run casinos and demanding "equality" for everyone.

Funny how it was wrong to grant American Indians "equality" when they were being robbed of their land and killed in massive numbers by invading whites, but right to demand "equality" when American Indians finally managed to overcome poverty and persecution to achieve success by operating a legal business.

In his diaries, Lansky blasted Establishment-types who got rich through legalized gambling as "Puritans," "swindlers" and "hypocrites."

The gangster angrily complained that while he and other men who created the gambling industry in America's underworld were branded as criminals, leaders of the Establishment who made millions running legalized gambling operations were praised as successful businessmen.

The condemnation of gambling by respectable society and the government ended, Lansky wrote, only when "the good church goers entered the gambling fraternity, the Rockefellers, the Hiltons, the Loews, Sheratons and many more from 'Who is Who.'"

"When the Establishment doesn't earn the profits in gambling, (they say) it is run by gangsters, it is immoral, sucking the milk from babies," Lansky wrote, his bitterness leaping off the page. "All this takes on a different twist when it's operated by the big corporations."

"We speak of gambling as though it is a commodity one time, and a sin another time," Lansky wrote in one of the spiral-bound accountant's notebooks from Woolworth's, where he recorded his diaries. The writings are a fascinating glimpse of the moral musings of a mobster on America's double standards of right and wrong.

"The whole (gambling) thing will be taken over by the Puritan establishment," Lansky predicted decades before gambling became a giant legal industry in Atlantic City as well as Las Vegas.

With most states now running lotteries and many offering other gambling as well, today civil servants have replaced the criminals of Lansky's day as the gambling operators in many areas.

Like a grocery store owner complaining about a supermarket driving him out of the neighborhood, Lansky wrote sadly that legalized gambling was muscling mobsters out of the business.

"When they (the political and business Establishment) saw the gambling business was very profitable then they got the machinery working to oust the people who sweated to make it profitable," Lansky said in the diaries, which were written between the 1940s and the early 1970s.

"My crime is now accepted and made legal in most of our states," Lansky wrote. "And gambling (has been) taken over by the hypocritical mob of stock swindlers with the protection of all law enforcement who until now would call casino gambling immoral."

By the federal government's account, Lansky turned gambling in this country into a major business enterprise and virtually invented the American casino.

Despite the violence that defined his youth, Lansky's battles with the law always stemmed from his gambling and bootlegging activities ? not murder, extortion or narcotics.

Prosecutors gave up efforts to indict Lansky in 1974, partly because of his poor health and advanced age.

"I agree that gambling isn't the most moral habit when you become addicted to it," Lansky concluded. "For that matter what is good when you abuse it?" But Lansky said that as long as people want to gamble, someone will provide gambling opportunities. The only question is who that someone will be.

Today, with Class III gaming in 46 states, Lansky's words seem eerily prophetic. In 1998, Americans legally bet more than $630 billion ? compared with $450 billion spent on groceries.

The irony of Lansky's life is that the endeavors that rendered him a gangster ? gambling and alcohol ? are today not only legal but thriving.

The irony of Lansky's diaries is that they enable a mobster who died 18 years ago to speak to us today from the grave, sharing with us his provocative thoughts about gambling in America and the double standard that many Americans use to judge gambling.