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Desert Companion

Crime and punishment: Notorious

citro1.jpg

Anthony Mair

Ex-con Frank Citro wants to get out of Nevada’s Black Book. If history is any indication, the streetwise singer faces an uphill battle

A few years ago, Frank Citro Jr. wanted to take his family to see Jersey Boys on the Strip. Now 73, the Jersey City native knew the original band that inspired the show, and had become close with singer Travis Cloer, who played Frankie Valli in the Vegas gig.

Citro sent his wife and two grown children on without him; he knew he couldn’t go. He’s banned for life from setting foot inside any of Nevada’s 220 statewide gaming rooms. Citro belongs to a notorious club that harkens back to the historic annals of Las Vegas public life. It’s Nevada’s Black Book, officially known as the “Excluded Person’s List,” an index of undesirables, felons, and parolees blackballed by state casino regulators. For 27 years, Citro hasn’t been able to enter a casino. That means no shows, no fancy dinners, or nights out gambling with friends. The avid doo-wop singer can’t see his favorite retro groups or pursue any well-paying Strip gigs. His predicament has forced him into a decades-long struggle for employment.

“We got terrorists around the world today who are chopping people’s heads off, and they can go to any casino they want,” he says. “But I’m so notorious that people are going to see me and start to panic? It’s ridiculous.”

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The Black Book was created in 1960 to reassure tourists that Vegas wasn’t indeed overrun by the mob. It featured characters such as William “Icepick Willie” Alderman, Murray “the Camel” Humphries, and Chicago crime boss Sam “The Cigar” Giancana, not to mention a cast of minor players. Sandra Kay Vaccaro, the only woman ever to make the list, was included in 1986 for her role in one of Nevada’s largest slot-cheating cases involving millions in phony jackpots.

Citro appeared before the state Gaming Control Board in 1991, four years after his release from a two-year stint in federal prison. He had been convicted of helping run a loan-sharking operation in Southern California, where prosecutors say Citro and others charged clients as much as 1,000 percent interest. Citro claimed his felonies had nothing to do with any Las Vegas casino, and weren’t even committed in the state of Nevada. Nonetheless, they voted to place him in the Black Book. His official blacklist entry includes a sly swipe at his not-so-subtle Jersey style: “Citro appeared at his Black Book hearing wearing a tuxedo, telling commissioners, ‘I’ve never been invited to join anything in my life, I just wanted to show the proper respect.’”

Now he wants to join another exclusive club: the handful of entrants who got their names removed from the Black Book. If successful, he would be first to do so in more than 50 years. Mike Lawton, spokesman for the state Gaming Control Board, says only three people have been successfully removed from the book. As to Citro’s chances: “The Nevada Gaming Control Board has no comment.”

To Citro, his argument is a no-brainer. Since 1991, he hasn’t been arrested, hasn’t gone to jail, hasn’t even received a traffic ticket. He’s become a model citizen who’s paid for his checkered past. After he addresses a host of health problems — including a shoulder issue that has required two surgeries — he plans to make his formal appeal for removal later this year. Citro has consulted with lawyers, though he plans to represent himself. The lawyers say Nevada officials may have violated his rights to due process and equal protection by enforcing his indefinite inclusion on the list.

Nevada’s casino blacklist has a chorus of critics, including lawyers who have represented clients similar to Citro. “It’s downright laughable the way they keep track of the list like it’s some infamous hall of fame for losers and ne’er-do-wells,” says Las Vegas attorney Richard Wright. “For every name in that book, there are scores or even hundreds who deserve the indignity as well.”

In the 1980s,  Wright unsuccessfully challenged the Black Book on behalf of Carl Wesley Thomas, a reputed organized-crime figure accused of teaching the Kansas City mob how to skim casino profits. Wright claimed Thomas had been unfairly singled out, and presented the records of 150 felons then approved to work in the state gaming industry. “There were killers, rapists, drug kingpins, and child molesters,” Wright says. “The only crime I couldn’t find was treason.” Years later, he still believes he lost the case because of Nevada’s need to protect gambling as its crown jewel of tax revenues. “It’s like suing Detroit,” Wright says. “You have slim chance of winning.”

In his 1995 book The Black Book and the Mob: The Untold Story of the Control of Nevada’s Casinos, historian Ronald Farrell wrote that the list was “an abomination of the law.” He added: “The evidence used is hearsay from snitches and informants. It’s a kangaroo court.”

Alan Balboni, a retired political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada who wrote the 1996 book Beyond the Mafia: Italian Americans and the Development of Las Vegas, believes the blacklist has lost its clout. In the last decade, the book has added only seven names — the last being Bujar Kaloshi, added in 2016 for marking cards. “It’s sort of fading away,” Balboni says. “And that might favor Frank Citro.”

Jennifer Roberts, associate director at UNLV’s International Center for Gaming Regulation, says the state will probably prevail. But, she adds, “If Mr. Citro can prove he no longer has the associations he once had and has moved away from his previous lifestyle, he might have a chance. But he would have a very strong burden of proof.”

One of Citro’s first jobs after prison was running a janitorial company. Since then, he’s held a succession of lackluster jobs — including strip-club manager, plumber, and carpenter. But nothing stuck, especially once bosses found out about the Excluded Persons List, which many view as a more serious blemish than any racketeering conviction. Citro eventually decided to capitalize on his notoriety, that shoulder-shrugging streetwise persona that’s part of his New Jersey genes. In 2010, he briefly starred in an Internet reality-show titled Tough Guy in which he played a version of himself — a fedora-wearing sinner seeking redemption. He says playing up a Hollywood vision of a tough guy does not mean any association with the real thing. In a way, you might say the Black Book made him do it.

“It’s all I’ve got left,” he says. “They made it so I can’t find work in this town. It’s like I have leprosy.”

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