Atlantic City Reflections: Martin Greenberg
Excerpts of the transcript of an interview with Martin L. Greenberg (NJ State Senator from 1974 to 1979; General Counsel to Atlantic City Golden Nugget Casino-Hotel from 1979 to 1980) conducted by Donald Linky for the Eagleton Center on the American Governor on July 5, 2006. The full interview is available in the Video Library.
Donald Linky: Did you discuss with the governor your decision to resign your senate seat [to return to full-time private law practice]?
Martin Greenberg: Yes.
Q: What do you recall of that conversation?
Martin Greenberg: “Why do you want to do that?” And I told him why I wanted to do it and he said it’s only another year or so to go. I said yeah, but you know what, it’s important to the firm and I got to have a life after this. I said I’m not going to be retired as anything, I don’t have a pension and I don’t- I need the income and I also want to preserve what’s left of the firm after my not having been there. I was there but I was not really helping it for six years. I said I don’t know what your future is but I know your past and I know your reputation and I believe that you don’t have the choice, you can’t quit now, I can, and I hope the people say nice things on the floor and you might even come in and say goodbye. And what he did, which no other governor had ever done before, was appear in the balcony when I- it was announced that I- it was my last term, my last day there, and he just sat and watched and listened and I was really moved by it but he understood what I was doing and it really– He didn’t need me anymore…
[After resignation from Senate and returning to private law practice]
Martin Greenberg: . . . for the most part I was seeing my kids and trying to build this firm up again and then Steve Wynn called and Steve Wynn called and he asked if I would be interested and then I said what are we going to do and then we had dinner and we talked about it, et cetera, and he said I don’t know anything about this process, we don’t have this in Las Vegas.
Q: For the record, who was Steve Wynn?
Martin Greenberg: Well, he had a freestanding casino in downtown Las Vegas called the Golden Nugget and he’s a fascinating human being. My wife and kids met him and they were just bowled over by him. He is a genius in my mind. He has unfortunately, and it’s well known, a retinitis pigmentosa condition so he was slowly going blind and it’s worse and worse and worse today so he’s almost– He used to put his hand on my shoulder when we walked through a casino and would bump into things because he couldn’t see at night but he paid meticulous attention to the color of the wallpaper and the pictures that were going to- the music in the elevator going up versus the music coming down to set the mood for the folks who wanted to gamble but he had no ability to build a casino in Atlantic City without public funds and no casino had ever raised public money before. So we sat down with Mike Milkin and he suggested this concept of using junk bonds, which means they were less secure than most bonds, and we did a dog and pony show around the country with Mike Milken’s company—
Q: Drexel Burnham?
Martin Greenberg: Yeah, Drexel, and Steve was outstanding. He was a true, real, great salesman, very, very articulate and very knowledgeable about the industry and he would then introduce me as somebody who’s in the senate so that I’m familiar with the procedure to make sure that he doesn’t stumble and get the place licensed. And then we raised the money, which at that time was a pittance compared to what it takes to build now, and hired some folks. I prevailed upon a friend of mine from the attorney general’s office who had sponsored- who had drafted the criminal code with some other folks to come over and work with my firm and help Steve build it. And we spent a couple of years doing that and then I became president of the Golden Nugget during that process and once it was operating after about a year I returned full time to the firm and we were general counsel to the company and somebody wanted to buy it named Bally and we negotiated that. Steve wanted to go back to Vegas. He didn’t really like New Jersey. They were– They made his life difficult. The process by which you get licensed is difficult and in part I’m responsible for that as the rest of the committee and the staff are. And Brendan took great pains in explaining to people the quality of the integrity of the system. I think the second chairman or maybe the first was his friend Joe Lordi who was the first assistant when Brendan was prosecutor and Joe continued the reputation for the integrity of the system which I’m very proud to say has never had a scandal in all the years that it’s been in business. People have been bounced out, they’ve been denied licenses. Even major corporations in one instances- one instance was denied a license but for the most part the licensing procedure has worked- not for the most part, I don’t know of its failure. The bad guys didn’t get in and we sold the casino and Steve went back to Las Vegas and built an empire and then sold that empire because of the problem he had with the underwriters who wanted to see better profits, et cetera, et cetera, and now he is again on top of the world with his new Wynn Casino and the new one that they’re building next door to it called Encores I think and he’s got two- one place in- going up in- off Shanghai, I can’t recall, he won that bid. So it’s been interesting.
Q: How did it come that he first called you—
Martin Greenberg: He met with– He tells me he met with Steve Perskie because Steve was in the senate then, I was gone, and he said I’m interested in coming here. Steve knew his name he said because even though he only had one casino he was a guy that was bringing a different kind of talent to Las Vegas, Willie Nelson type stuff which folks from the strip would come downtown to see and eat his Chinese food that he had that was wonderful and play some craps and blackjack or whatever. And he asked Steve to recommend the names of some folks that he might interview to be counsel because he didn’t know how to do it and I guess among other- I know among other names or at least Steve recommended me and perhaps others. I don’t know. And so he interviewed me and we chatted, went to dinner with our wives and Willie Nelson was in town and it was very glamorous and we talked about the process and I asked him a lot of questions about his background and how he got there because I was concerned that if I was going to do this I wanted to get it done. I didn’t want to find out we had a problem and that interview was important to me and Steve was very open and discussed his father who was an inveterate gambler and how he has leave law school in the second year because his father died and he took over the business which was a bingo parlor or something like that in- outside of Washington. And somebody took him to Vegas to see what it looked like and he said the bingo parlor is not for me, this is what I want, and then we went through the history- his history and what people he knew, anything in the woodwork that I should know, and et cetera. We interviewed him.
Q: With your different hats as state senator, casino executive, casino lawyer and with the luxury of time, were the mistakes that New Jersey made in structuring the regulation of the casino gambling industry in New Jersey, have we frustrated the creativity of people like Steve Wynn in doing their thing and building the types of casinos they would like to see? How do you feel? Has Atlantic City been a success or a failure or somewhere in between?
Martin Greenberg: It depends on how you define success. The city itself and the effort to rebuild Atlantic City has not succeeded. It’s been a long time and it has not succeeded. The creation of jobs is a plus, it’s there. The contribution the industry makes to the state and to other investments which are authorized and required under casino regulations and statutes has been a significant help. Witness the fact that one of the things that is motivating the crisis today as we are shut down for the first or second day of this period is this- the closing of the casinos and the loss of a tremendous amount of money on a daily basis but in specific answer to your question I don’t think the regulations have hampered the construction of that type of hotel that the developers want to build. We went, as you might recall, from a limited period of being open to 24 hours now, and that has evolved over the period of time, and it permitted the investment community to recognize New Jersey as a place where these endeavors and the construction of these mega millions and hundreds of millions of dollars of hotels are not in jeopardy because of exposure to criminal elements. No casino that’s open has lost its license. None has really been in jeopardy and when I say Steve Wynn sold and went back to Vegas because of his distaste for the process, that doesn’t mean that a corporate structure, which is what almost all the hotels are now, have any resistance to coming here. On the contrary, they’re expanding, they’re building towers, et cetera. So I think the experiment worked for the industry, it worked for the employment of a lot of folks in the industry and it worked for the creation of a new source of funds which has helped New Jersey in many ways. Is gambling good or bad for people who are prone to addiction to things? I– I’m not an expert on that subject but obviously people have gotten hurt just as they probably get hurt going and buying lottery tickets. This is easier and we try to keep an eye on those folks and limit the amount that can be bet under circumstances but that really has not prevented people from falling into a trap that’s been set by the legislation not intentionally but it’s there. And you go to the racetrack and people bet and they bet more than they should at times so I don’t think– The one failure of the experiment is that Atlantic City has not developed into what it used to be which is what part of the motivation was. As a matter of fact, what we had when we opened was T-shirts with the following imprint on the front. We were I think the third one to open. It was We’re Going to Make Atlantic City Famous Again and it didn’t become famous for what it used to be, the family resort where you watched the horse jump into the ocean and you ate stuff that made your teeth bad on the boardwalk but it did create a new industry. In fact, it is the only industry that is constitutionally established in the state of New Jersey and it did a large part of what it was intended to do but not everything but we ain’t finished yet. There is still time to go obviously to bring the town back and get the people employed more fully than they are from the communities which- from which we could draw employees and to get housing for the folks who really are not living well and I- we’ve tried and we’ve struggled. It’s a very difficult problem not terribly different from Newark. That’s the governor’s next problem after he gets everybody back to work and he gets the taxes on real estate down.