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Las Vegas Valley Casino Plan Puts Secretive Family into Spotlight

21 February 2000

by Launce Rake

A secretive and powerful family that controls a worldwide development empire, including some of the largest and most well-known malls in North America, has quietly been acquiring an extensive real estate portfolio in the Las Vegas Valley.

Beginning nearly 15 years ago, when they played a key role in developing Peccole Ranch, a quartet of Iranian-born Canadian brothers has quietly amassed some high-profile Las Vegas properties while steadfastly avoiding publicity themselves.

If not for a controversial plan to develop a neighborhood casino in Spring Valley, the family probably could have kept out of the public eye. But their effort to establish a 300-room, eight-story casino project in the heart of a residentially zoned area sparked protests from hundreds of nearby residents, a controversial Clark County Commission vote, a lawsuit and a state appeal panel to review that vote.

Citing the family's penchant for privacy, representatives of the Ghermezians' business interests here and in Canada emphatically declined to answer any questions about the family or their businesses.

Keeping the Ghermezian name out of the newspapers has been a goal of the family for two decades; only a handful of reporters have gotten access to the family. But a few facts about the family have come to light.

Brothers Nader, Eskander, Raphael and Bahman Ghermezian are the heart of the family's business interests. And the family's development efforts frequently land them in court.

The family arrived in Canada in the late 1950s from Iran, which was then experiencing political turmoil. The family patriarch, Jacob Ghermezian, built a chain of Persian rug stores and remained an important figure within the family until his death earlier this year.

The family moved to Edmonton, Alberta, in the 1970s, and began amassing their source of wealth and legal troubles -- land. The family, living behind a walled compound, turned residential scrubland on the city's west side into the world's largest shopping center.

Since then, the Ghermezians helped build and still retain about one-quarter interest of the Mall of America in Minneapolis, the largest mall in the United States.

By the 1980s, the family was looking for new places to invest.

While some of those other investment opportunities went sour, notably a large mall outside Washington, D.C., the family has done very well in Las Vegas.

A search of the Nevada secretary of state website shows that the Ghermezians and their close business associates are principals in at least 34 companies registered in the state.

Among them: Triple Five Nevada Development Corp. and other Triple Five incarnations, Village Square-Dana Park, San Vincente Estates, Santa Teresa Estates, Malone Manor, Silverado Ranch, Maryland Hills, Pebble Commercial Center, Wellington Homes and numerous others.

Besides the Spring Valley development, of which the controversial casino would be just a part of a 110-acre mall, the Ghermezians have or had financial interest in Boca Park, a sprawling commercial development in Summerlin; Village Square; Colonnade Square; and the original 600 acres developed at Peccole Ranch.

Even those who know the Orthodox Jewish family -- such as Clark County Commissioner Mary Kincaid -- are surprised by the level of the brothers' investment in the Las Vegas Valley.

All of those who have dealt with the family describe them as deeply private, but also intensely combative. They also are described by journalists and politicians who have dealt with the family as hard-as-nails political and legal operators.

The family has been dogged by lawsuits and charges of improper influence over public officials since the 1970s, when the Canadian government called a Royal Commission -- a court of judicial inquiry -- to investigate allegations of bribes paid to Edmonton City Councilors.

The City Council had changed residential zoning to allow the family to develop the sprawling West Edmonton Mall.

The commission found that "gifts," including $40,000 to one councilman, had been offered -- but also found that no laws had been broken.

The family is often lavish with political contributions, in the United States and in Canada, to local officials who control land-use decisions, reporters familiar with the Ghermezians' business practice agree.

That was true in the Spring Valley casino approval. Above the protests of nearby residents, County Commissioner Lance Malone swung his vote to "yes" to allow the controversial proposal to move forward.

Election documents show that Malone received more than $22,000 in campaign contributions last year alone from companies controlled by the Ghermezians, company principals or their family members.

The two other "yes" votes on the County Commission for the casino also received sizable contributions from the Ghermezians and their associates last year. According to campaign finance reports, Kincaid received more than $35,000 from them in 1999 and Commissioner Erin Kenny more than $13,500.

Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates, who abstained on the vote, received $21,000. Commissioners Myrna Williams and Bruce Woodbury, who also did not vote on the issue, did not get any campaign contributions from the family in 1999.

Commissioner Dario Herrera, the lone vote against the casino, also did not receive anything from the Ghermezians.

Opponents have turned to the courts and a Nevada state appeal process to block the casino.

Tomorrow: Part Two: The Ghermezians Often Wind Up in Legal Fights Over Their Projects.

 
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