Sunday, December 7, 2008

Chapter 4- My Pal, Jake

I sat through the barely audible drone of the morning meeting re-tracing all of my life episodes in which Jake Bronstein had played a supporting and/or starring role, and taking a mental inventory of potentially incriminating documents that had my name associated with his.

I had made a number of introductions for him and vouched for him plenty of times both verbally, and in writing. We’d known each other a long time, and before we started pursuing business deals together, I had checked out his background, including having Seth tap into Knoll’s database, which combines Lexis Nexis with a comprehensive assortment of federal and state court records, and even hard-to-locate criminal arrest records.
Knoll's search found that Jake had plenty of assets, and other than nice-sized mortgages on his even bigger sized properties, he had no major liabilities. No lawsuits, no liens, and the copy of the tax return that he shared with me the previous year displayed a million dollar income. Even if some of his enterprises were “non-traditional”, they were legal.

Granted, operating the Nevada franchise of a nation-wide chain of title loan stores, which are simply hard money lending businesses where borrowers put up the title to their car as collateral for small loans (typically under $1000), and pay a monthly interest rate of 20%, which adds up to almost 250% annually, isn’t as “socially acceptable” as owning a McDonalds franchise, but it is legal in 30 states. And, in Nevada, it’s a multi-million dollar business. And, however colorful Jake's wholesale food business was, so what if selling noodles and olive oil is the same business that made Don Corleone famous? After all, Jake was in Vegas, not Idaho.

He’s the quintessential deal maker and influence peddler; whether brokering investments in movie projects, real estate, diamonds, or exotic cars, if there’s a spread to be made between the bid and the offer, Jake dives into his OPM Rolodex (Other People’s Money) to try and match up buyers and sellers, and carve out cream for himself.

If you want a meeting with an important politician, Jake will arrange it; for a fee. If Jake has an Achilles heal, it’s the occasional inability to separate the intrigue of plot lines from his movies from real life business situations. I only discovered that after coming across Jake’s name in an old news story profiling a purported offer to make a multi-million dollar contribution to a recent presidential campaign. That offer was actually accepted by the candidate's consligiere, but the deal fell through when the consigliere didn't live up to a promise to twist the arm of an Eastern Europe president.

There were some other news clippings I had come across on the Internet, but mostly about local philanthropic deeds that he had performed, some films he had produced, and the one in the Wall Street Journal reporting the sale of his house; Jake had set a record for the most expensive residential property in Henderson County. He was also written up in the Las Vegas Journal for being one of “Vegas’s Top 40 Under 40”, and if one didn’t know better, you’d think the photo of him next to the write-up was Andy Garcia, the Hollywood actor, whose role as the cool, but calculating Las Vegas Casino owner in the blockbuster hit “Ocean’s 11” provides a unique, if not coincidental, portrayal of Jake’s persona.

Every year Jake throws a birthday party for his wife Elly at The Palm in Vegas, and the guests are limited to a close circle of no more than two dozen of his and Elly’s local friends, along with a selection of Jake’s business acquaintances. For the past few years, I had been on the invite list, and my place card was always at Jake’s table. His is an eclectic, if not “A” list; it usually includes the Governor of Nevada, the state’s Republican U.S. Senator, two or three celebrity performers that also live in Turnberry, the world’s #3 ranked tennis player now living in Vegas, a retired boxing champ that Jake partnered with to open a chain of fast food franchises, and a few multi-millionaires that are either golf buddies from the Las Vegas Country Club or tennis buddies from the Beverly Hills Country Club.

And at every party, there was always “Uncle Al” Meltzer, Jake’s godfather. Al Meltzer and Jake’s Dad were tied to the hip back in the day when Al was also a protégé of Meyer Lanksy, the famous mobster; which helps to explain how Jake’s Dad became hooked up with the Teamsters. When Jake’s Dad died, Al became Jake’s rabbi. That’s also when his role as “godfather” became more than just figurative. Even though Uncle Al is barred for life from walking into any casino in Atlantic City, he still has a private parking space for his G-5 at Nevada’s McClaren International Airport, and he’s always welcome in Vegas.

But I got a bit ahead of myself. Back to Jake. Growing up in Skokie, IL, Jake’s first home was a modest split-level in a planned, middle-to-upper class suburb of the country’s then-second largest city. Jake’s early childhood was not much different than any other teenager growing up in the early 1970s in a reasonably affluent neighborhood comprised of young, ladder*climbing professionals. And even though Joe moved his family to a larger house when Jake was in high school [with a huge gate and the only one within 200 miles that had an indoor swimming pool], Jake remained modest and was always low-key about what others might have impolitely suggested was his father’s unique and rapid success.

Psychologists might say that Jake is the classic ‘middle child’ profile, and he clearly inherited his father’s brains and entrepreneurial spirit. On the other hand, Jake’s brother Sam, who was older by three years, was far from being the sharpest knife in the drawer. Simply put, Sam was put on this earth to screw up. A marginal student in school, Sam never exhibited any interest in work, and he never had a job for more than two or three months. When he was sober, he spent his days hustling golf at the Las Vegas Country Club and otherwise lived off the largess of Joe. After Joe died, it was Jake that he turned to pay his bills. Sam would ultimately die from a drug overdose at the age of 38, and it’s unlikely he is missed by anyone.

Jake’s sister, Joanie, who came along four years after Jake, was always Mamma’s baby, and it was no surprise that after Al died, Jake would ultimately take on a paternal role and watch out for his sister, just like Al Pacino in the Godfather. The only job Joanie has ever had has been Jake’s receptionist, where she answers the phone and takes messages.

Unlike his siblings, Jake has always been a fighter. And, like his father, he is loyal to the core to his closest friends. Overcoming a childhood illness that resulted in permanent hearing loss in his right ear, Jake has always been an accomplished athlete and, if not a ‘deep thinker’, he was always an above-average student, even if he ‘never lived up to the potential’ that his teachers said he had. A natural golfer and tennis player, he inherited the same chiseled good looks and charm that his father was famous for, and like his father, Jake has always been a hero to his peers, a reputation that was first cemented only a few months after his bar mitzvah when he was caught in the high school girl’s locker room having sex with not one, but both of the 17-year old co-captains of the senior high school cheerleading squad.

But Jake wouldn’t enjoy his local fame for long. At the age of 15, as his father’s star was rising and his role in Las Vegas was expanding, the family was uprooted and moved to Las Vegas, where Jake would eventually be exposed to Joe’s rolodex, and everything else that Sin City had to offer.

His first summer job before going to college (Syracuse University) was spent working as a messenger for Joe, where he became acquainted with all of the leading ‘players’ in town. Because Joe had friends all over the Strip, when Jake returned home after each spring semester, his summer jobs included internships at various casinos, where he learned the intricacies of the casino business, from how to spot card counters and shills to learning how to become a ‘greeter’, a job that requires tending to the ‘special requests’ of high rollers at the casino hotels. Jake’s stories from that job alone could be prime fodder for a hit movie, especially the episode that had Jake arrested by the FBI when he was 19 (charges were quickly dismissed after a few strategic phone calls were placed by Joe), but like the advertising slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, and Jake is no dummy.

After the experience with the FBI, Joe decided Jake should spend some time away from the influences of Vegas, so he sent Jake to law school at the University of Miami, where he could get a professional degree, and not coincidentally, be kept under close watch by Uncle Al, who would become Jake’s mentor after his father died.

But Jake had already gotten the taste for the action, and after getting his law degree, he had no interest in becoming a practicing attorney. He wanted back into the game. Through his father’s connections, Jake found himself doing ‘consulting work’ for various business enterprises, many of which were in the gaming industry. At the age of 25, Jake became a senior adviser to a New York real estate mogul who had established a beachhead in Atlantic City and built the first mega casino hotel on the boardwalk. Soon thereafter, Jake found himself traveling around the world, and settled in Paris for three years, where he provided his expertise (along with his connections) to casinos throughout Europe.

Before he was 30, Jake had become a ‘player’. He was single, living large, and his portfolio of business interests was growing. Although he spent much of what he made, he dabbled in financing movies, business brokering, and he even owned a small, Hong Kong-based toy manufacturer. His list of influential acquaintances filled more than one little black book.

Jake’s Paris experience would be interrupted by a call from his father, who needed Jake back in Las Vegas. After a Justice Department probe of the union’s role in Las Vegas, Joe had been indicted on federal tax charges, and even though he had brushes with the Feds two or three times before, even Mel Goldman, Las Vegas’s top criminal lawyer, who would become the town’s major, couldn’t get Joe a pass. Not only was Joe headed to prison, he was forced to pay more than $10 million in back taxes, which was a big hit to take back in those days, and it left his family with a fraction of the assets that Joe had accumulated. Enough to subsist on, but not nearly in the lifestyle they had all grown accustomed to. Making matters worse, while doing the last leg of his stretch at the federal correction facility at Elgin Air Force base, Joe suffered a fatal heart attack in the middle of a tennis game, and Jake’s future would take yet another turn.

When Jake discovered that his father had left him a small trust account with a little over $1 million, and the terms of the will prohibited his taking out more than $50,000 a year, it was Joe’s rolodex that Jake focused on. Even though Uncle Al could always be counted on in a jam, Jake had been brought up to make his own way, and Uncle Al was only supposed to be there in emergencies.

Despite having a colorful blend of people that he mingles with, Jake has always been sensitive to what sets friends apart from acquaintances. In Vegas, as well as in Hollywood, everyone has a hidden agenda, and Jake is always wary of that. Like Sun Tzu, he keeps his friends close, his enemies closer, and he could count on three fingers those that he could trust implicitly. Somehow, I had wound up in the latter group. Aside from similarity in age and cultural upbringing, maybe he liked me because, just like him, I came from a world where your word is your bond; shaking hands seals the deal. Also, I wasn’t a ‘player’; he knew that I was a straight shooter. I’ve never bullshitted him, and I’ve never tried to impress him, unlike just about everyone else.

And Jake is savvy enough to appreciate that there’s more than just a space of 3000 miles that separates the strip of Las Vegas Boulevard from the pin stripes of Wall Street, and I helped bridge that gap. I opened doors for him to wing-tipped New York bankers and Venture Capital czars, a group that he was far removed from. I gave him objective advice when all others had ulterior motives, introduced corporate structure to some of his business, helped him draft business proposals, and I also helped him set up a hedge fund to help legitimize his film finance business. I never ask for payment, I’ve always trusted him to do the right thing when the time came, and which is probably what set me apart from everyone else that he knew. And, just like the sun always sets, when he says “Don’t worry, you’re covered,” he’s always done the right thing.

Every once in a while, I’d get a ‘dividend check’ after a deal he had made that resulted from an introduction that I had provided for him, or based on a deal memo that I had drafted for his use. He always remembered Charlie’s birthday, and every year, he would send her a gift fit for a princess, and his Sweet 16 gift to her was a heart shaped, diamond-studded Tiffany necklace.

After I helped him arrange a several million dollar credit facility with a private bank in New York, he had a Cadillac Escalade (black, of course) with a big red bow wrapped around it delivered to my driveway. The car had been unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show just three weeks before, and it was the only Escalade in Connecticut, which is exactly why he chose that particular car. His philosophy was that the car you drove spoke volumes; the louder the better. He had even gotten vanity license plates for the truck, and because his business had leased it in Las Vegas, the Nevada tags made it that much more ostentatious in the suburbs of Connecticut. When Charlie’s friends saw our new “ride”, equipped with the first ever in-car drop-down TV screens, some giggled to her and asked if her Dad was in the mob. Hardly the image I wanted to present, but it was a great ride. And if that was the way Jake like to show appreciation to people, who was I to argue?

If Jake’s Achilles heel is his creativity, mine is going out of my way to do favors for friends. I don’t keep a record of favors that I’ve done for pals, that’s not the way I was brought up. Sure, everyone keeps a mental note, but in Jake’s case, there were one or two favors that I had deleted from my memory files for good reason.

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