Ordained minister an unlikely mouthpiece for state’s legal brothels
By ED VOGEL
REVIEW-JOURNAL CAPITAL BUREAU
George Flint, owner of the Chapel of the Bells wedding chapel in Reno, estimates he’s performed more than 50,000 weddings since the 1960s. Besides performing weddings, Flint is the lobbyist for Nevada’s legal prostitution industry.Photo by Brad Horn/Special to the Review-Journal
When people of faith condemn prostitution, Nevada Brothel Owners Association Director George Flint waits for his chance to respond.”Other than his family, who was Jesus’ best friend?” Flint asks. “She was a young woman named Mary from a town on the Sea of Galilee called Magdala.” For centuries, Mary Magdalene has been portrayed as a prostitute, although the Bible is silent on her profession.Then Flint mentions Rehab, described in the Old Testament as a harlot who protected Israelite spies and aided in their escape from Jericho.
It might seem surprising that the 69-year-old Flint, mouthpiece of Nevada’s legal prostitution industry for the past 20 years, is well-versed in the Bible.But his parents both were fundamentalist ministers in Wyoming, and he dutifully attended Eugene Bible College and became an Assemblies of God minister in Oregon.
Tired of being the always-broke father of four young children, Flint moved to Reno in 1962 to open the Chapel of the Bells wedding chapel.
Flint became politically active almost immediately. He began lobbying legislators on behalf of the wedding chapel industry. A banker friend who purchased the Kit Kat Ranch in Moundhouse, just east of Carson City, suggested he also lobby for brothels.Which is what he has done since 1985. Since then, Flint has shown up nearly every day during legislative sessions to serve as the industry-hired lobbyist for Nevada’s legal brothels.
“We live in a world where we have no choice whether we want prostitution,” Flint said earlier this month. “The only choice is how we want it, controlled or uncontrolled.” Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said she has known Flint since 1989. “He has never been anything but proper with me. He always has been respectful. … He is a lobbyist like anyone else.”
State law permits legal prostitution with County Commission approval in rural counties. Ten counties have licensed brothels, and Nevada has 26 legal brothels that employ about 300 prostitutes. No other state has legal prostitution. Though he is a familiar figure at the Legislature, Flint usually shuns publicity. He figures it best not to draw attention to a business many abhor. He seldom testifies before legislative committees. But Flint has still protected the industry.
When AIDS first became a public concern, brothel owners feared legislators might outlaw prostitution. With Flint’s leadership, the industry took the lead in self-regulation, requiring regular testing for HIV and condom use.”It’s become a normal special interest group like the bankers or gaming,” Flint said of prostitution. “I think part of the reason for its acceptance is the way I approach lobbying. I don’t haul girls into the building. It has been very gradual. I now have the same access to individual legislators as everyone else.”
This year Flint proposed the brothel industry pay the new 10 percent live entertainment tax, like strip clubs, bars and any other business that provides entertainment for patrons. By imposing a $20 to $40 charge on brothel admissions, Flint estimated, the industry would contribute $2 million a year to state coffers. Although hardly supporters of prostitution, Titus and Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, became unlikely Flint allies.At a time when legislators were debating whether Nevadans should be taxed for renting videos, Leslie figured brothels should start paying some state taxes.Only in the last days of the session did the brothel tax die. Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, feared a live entertainment tax would hurt neighborhood bars and restaurants. Leslie agreed and exempted from the tax facilities with fewer than 300 seats. Brothels fell under the exemption.
Leslie wants to try again at the 2005 Legislature to enact an industry-specific tax on prostitution. She salutes Flint for his willingness to accept a tax increase. In exchange, Flint wants the Legislature to repeal an old law that prevents advertising by brothels. Even if the Legislature does not lift the ban, Flint believes it soon will be successfully challenged in the courts. Titus, the primary legislator behind the tax on strip clubs, intends to support the brothel tax legislation. “I would certainly vote for it,” she said. “But the reason they want to be taxed is it legitimizes them even more. We have totally abandoned the family atmosphere in Nevada.”
Compared with the 300 legal prostitutes in all of Nevada, Flint estimates 10,000 illegal hookers work Las Vegas on most weekends. He also contends that 70 percent of the exotic dancers in high-end strip clubs sometimes turn tricks.”There are private boxes on the ceilings in some of these clubs that cost $500 to use,” he said. “What do you think happens there?”
Lt. Stan Olsen, the Metropolitan Police Department’s legislative lobbyist, said Flint’s 10,000 figure is greatly exaggerated. But he added police do not have a specific figure on the number of prostitutes in Las Vegas.
Not all brothel owners believe in Flint’s low-key approach. Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, is Flint’s protagonist. Hof refuses to join the brothel association and relishes publicity. He frequently appears with prostitutes on Howard Stern’s radio and television shows, and he occasionally is featured on HBO programs.
“I used to listen to everything George said until I found he was the front guy for Joe Conforte,” Hof said, referring to the former owner of the Mustang Ranch who now lives in exile. “Joe didn’t lay low, and George wanted everyone else to lay low. I woke up and said, `The hell with this.’ I stick my neck out. After 11 years there are few people who don’t know of me.”
Hof said the attention he has generated for his brothel, a mile east of Carson City, has resulted in greater acceptance of legal prostitution.
“We are dealing with the sanitation of a vice,” he said. “Instead of laying low like George Flint wants, we are doing it right, telling people about it, and they are responding to our message.”
Flint said that approach is just wrong. “I think Dennis suffers from the same disease as Joe Conforte,” he said. “They think you can normalize this business in everybody’s minds, make it as acceptable as selling McDonald’s hamburgers or Plymouth cars. But certain elements of society never will accept it. The whole delicate issue of sex for sale always will have some tender areas.”
Flint does not hide that he was a confidant to Conforte. Flint acknowledges that up until last year, he frequently spoke on the telephone with Conforte, who is living in Rio de Janeiro where he fled to avoid tax evasion charges. Conforte threw caution to the wind during his years as Nevada’s most prominent brothel owner, and Flint recalls him giving out complimentary passes to legislators. Flint said some accepted them as quirky souvenirs, but three or four, whom he will not name, used the comps. Those days are over, he said.
In an ideal world, Flint said, sex would not be separated from love or marriage. But many men, according to Flint, are too homely, too timid, too handicapped or too disfigured to attract the affections of any woman, according to Flint.
“Other than the urge to survive, the urge for sex in a normal man is the strongest urge he has to deal with,” Flint said. “I have come to the conclusion that legal and regulated prostitution is better than the alternative since it eliminates pimps and eliminates crimes on the client and on the woman.”