The story surrounding the 1986 impeachment of U.S District Court Judge Harry Claiborne reads like a Hollywood script. There’s a judge stashing hundred dollar bills in a Las Vegas casino vault, a brothel owner turned state’s witness and an ethically-challenged FBI agent.
Here’s the cast of characters:
Harry Claiborne was born in McRae, Ark., the son of a cotton farmer. His dad, Arthur Smith Claiborne once saved an immigrant farmer from a lynching by shooting the KKK stalker with buckshot. Harry apparently learned something from his father as while in the Army during World War II he was punished for opposing the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps.
Following his wartime service, Claiborne settled in Las Vegas. He established a private law practice there and became known for his high-profile clients. He represented Judy Garland and Carol Burnett in their divorce cases and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in casino licensing matters. That’s in addition to a mobster or two. He was known for his antics, like bringing a giant file full of documents into the court before a case, documents that were blank pieces of paper.
Claiborne rose through the judicial ranks in Las Vegas and spent a term as a representative in the Nevada legislature. In 1978 he was appointed U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Nevada by President Jimmy Carter.
Joe Conforte is best known as the owner of the Mustang Ranch, possibly the world’s most famous brothel.
He got his start in Oakland, Calif., as a cab driver. In addition to collecting the meter fare he started matching up passengers with street walkers, and of course taking a cut. He set up his first whorehouse in Oakland where he served an exclusively Asian clientele. Seems he knew there were no Asian police officers in Oakland so this way he was sure to not get snagged by a plainclothesman.
In 1955 he moved to Nevada and set up in some trailers. He expanded from there and by 1967 he was buying out a competitor who owned the Mustang Ranch. Along the way he married Sally Burgess, who was to become the madame at the “ranch.” Conforte was known for not only paying off local officials but also entertaining them at his properties.
The Reno Gazette Journal (Sept. 23, 1990) said of Conforte, “(his) shady dealings have always haunted his efforts to present a benevolent, easy-going image. Conforte wants the world to think of him as a free-market Dionysus, the Greek god of revelry, and he’s worked hard and laid out some serious cash to get the point across.”
As an employer he was not quite so benevolent as the Gazette Journal continues, “The women will tell you in private that the Mustang Ranch is a prison under Conforte. The girls work three-week stints, and then can leave the house for no more than 45 minutes at the end of their 12-hour shift. They furnish their own room, and it’s up to them to pay rent and keep it clean.”
The self-proclaimed “King of Sting.” Yablonsky was the head of the FBI office in Las Vegas from 1980-1983.
A native of Newark, N.J., Yablonsky started his career at the FBI in 1952 and worked in Albuquerque, New York, MIami and Cincinnati before coming to Las Vegas. In his 2019 obituary in the Las Vegas Review Journal he is described as “well-spoken and outspoken, frequently insisting that the local media fostered anti-law enforcement and anti-government sentiments in Nevada, hindering his office’s investigations. In 1982, he refused to speak in front of a Rotary Club audience until a Las Vegas Sun reporter was forced to leave.
“But his cigar-chewing, rough-around-the-edges persona worked in his favor while working undercover with career criminals. He once joked to a Review-Journal reporter, ‘you wouldn’t buy a used car from me.’”
And these three came together…
In 1977, Conforte was arrested and charged with 10 counts of income tax evasion. He faced five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. When his appeal was denied he flew the coup, heading to Brazil.
From his exile Conforte let it be known that he was willing to sing about the bribes he paid local officials and judges. That was music to Yablonsky’s ears. The FBI agent offered the whorehouse entrepreneur millions of dollars in tax breaks and a reduced sentence for testimony against Claiborne. Based on the info from Conforte, Claiborne was charged with bribery, fraud and tax evasion.
Conforte returned from three years in exile in Brazil to testify at Clairborne’s trial. The AP report from the trial notes: “brothel owner Joe Conforte said he paid Claiborne $30,000 to derail a voter fraud investigation involving prostitutes at his Mustang Ranch bordello and gave him $55,000 more to get a tax evasion conviction dropped.” In addition, “Claiborne’s attorneys won a ruling forbidding the government to introduce evidence that the judge consorted with prostitutes employed by Conforte from 1972 until his appointment to the federal bench in 1978.”
The trial was declared a mistrial as the jury remained deadlocked. Conforte was widely believed to have perjured himself, in one instance claiming he was in the country when he was not. A second trial was held on the tax evasion charge only, a charge that wasn’t dependent on Conforte’s testimony. Claiborne was found guilty of not reporting $107,000 in income on his 1979 and 1980 tax filings. He was given a two year sentence.
When Clairborne refused to resign his judgeship and continued to collect his salary, the case was brought up in the House of Representatives. He was charged with four articles of impeachment. Three related to the failure to report income on his taxes and the other was a result of his conviction in court. The House approved the articles of impeachment unanimously by roll call vote.
When the impeachment articles came up for a Senate trial that body set up a 12-member committee and decided that testimony would be presented only to this committee rather than the full Senate. (Both Mitch McConnell and Al Gore were members of this impeachment committee.) This rule change was later cited as unconstitutional by Claiborne supporters.
Claiborne insisted he was innocent and that tax preparers were responsible for the omission. He claimed he was the victim of overzealous and ambitious federal agents. “They have been pursuing me like a pack of wolves would pursue a sick caribou.” Claiborne’s attorney Oscar Goodman was quoted by Gannett New Service (Sept. 17, 1986): “Federal investigators resorted to ‘rude, crude’ tactics of intimidation and burglary to put Nevada federal Judge Harry Claiborne in jail.” Goodman would later become mayor of Las Vegas.
Claiborne was convicted by a large bipartisan majority on three of the four articles. The article that referred to his trial conviction did not get the necessary two-third votes. The senators were concerned about a precedent. If they were to convict someone because of a court conviction, would it mean that they would have to acquit an impeached individual who had been found innocent by a court?
As he was headed off to jail, Journal Gazette reporter Ken Miller (May 15, 1986) asked:
“If he could do it over, would Claiborne do things differently.
“If he would have kept quiet rather than excoriating a group of Las Vegas Strike force prosecutors as ‘rotten bastards’ and ‘crooks and liars.’
“If he would have severed any relationship with Mustang Ranch brothel owner Joe Conforte, who almost single-handedly delivered the Claiborne indictment.
“If he would have kept his money more to himself, not cashing huge checks in casinos and not leaving a shoe box full of $100 bills for years in a Las Vegas Glitter Gulch casino vault.
“If he would have been more discreet than strolling into a Reno auto dealership and scrawling out a five-figure check for a flashy sports car for a girlfriend.
“If he would have shut up instead of roasting the U.S. Justice Department’s presence in Nevada and accusing the federal government of trying to ruin the state.”
Claiborne served 17 months of his two-year prison sentence. In 1987 he was allowed to practice law again by the Nevada Supreme Court, themselves suspicious of the feds actions in the Claiborne case. By 2004 he was suffering from cancer, heart disease and the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. He shot himself in his Las Vegas home while his fourth wife, Norma Ries, and his 22-year-old grandson watched TV in the next room.
In 1990 the IRS padlocked the Mustang Ranch and put it on the auction block with the proceeds to go to paying Conforte’s tax bills. But they apparently ended up selling it to a shell company for Conforte who continued to operate it from Brazil. In November 1995, he was indicted in absentia for thirty-three violations under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The U.S. was never able to have him extradited from Brazil.