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George Knapp: Who’s been naughty? Lots of people!

Department of Justice elves are busy, busy, busy this holiday season, putting together an assortment of handcrafted surprises to be unwrapped soon by boys and girls who have been more naughty than nice. Informed sources at the North Pole say that Santa has compiled an incredibly detailed list of names, dates and events. And, most important, the elves intend to leave price tags attached to each of the pending gifts because the dollar amounts will be critical in making the call about which kids land on the naughty list.

For instance, the most diligent elves are those from the IRS and Metro, working on the big, fat package that will be sitting under the tree for Manny Varagiannis. As reported here previously, young Manny is suspected of running an escort service during the time he was also working as a manager at Olympic Garden strip club. A new indictment made public this week alleges that Manny tried to hide $2.4 million dollars in cash, money that had been earned by an enthusiastic cadre of hard-working entertainers who so loved their jobs that they even made house calls, or, more often, paid visits to hotel rooms to entertain lonely men who were far from their families during the holidays.

Special Elf-Agent Paul Camacho of the IRS shared this bit of holiday cheer with yours truly in response to the Varagiannis indictment for alleged attempts to “structure” bank deposits so they would not come to the attention of law enforcement. “The purveyors of the illegal sex trade [should be aware] that we have several ongoing investigations,” Camacho declared. “Our Fraud Task Force will follow the money. No matter how sophisticatedly hidden.” More investigations under way? Good to know Manny will not be out there all alone.

And then there is high-rolling Las Vegas gambler Jeremy Johnson, who dropped millions of dollars in local casinos, and millions more in online poker rooms. Johnson is well known in his native Utah for his philanthropy, helping those in need and always reaping the publicity that comes with his grand gestures. But the U.S. attorney’s offices here and in Salt Lake think the clever Jeremy deserves a lump of coal in his stocking because of the way he made his millions.

According to a complaint compiled by the Federal Trade Commission and IRS, Johnson and others allegedly operated one of the most sophisticated — and complicated — Internet scams in history. The amount ripped off from hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting seniors and other consumers is now believed to top $350 million. We could all be philanthropists if we had a pile of “found money” as tall as a Christmas tree. A Las Vegas company assigned to act as a receiver in this case told a federal judge earlier that Jeremy and associates put together a web of dozens of shell companies, presumably as a way to move money and assets around and keep them from being seized by those Bad Santas from the government. More than $50 million in cash and gold were stashed away like stuffing in a Thanksgiving turkey.

But it is all starting to unravel for Jeremy and friends, including a couple of Las Vegas businessmen. The criminal case and civil cases are about to make large strides, after slogging their way through the courts since 2010. Some of these youngsters may not be home for the holidays.

DOJ elves are also tap, tap, tapping away at their keyboards, putting together some last-minute gifts for a dozen or so boys and girls who’ve previously been left off the list in the ongoing HOA political-corruption probe. By the time this column hits the streets, we might already know their names, but among them may be that of Leon Benzer, former owner of Benzilla Tequila and a construction company that sucked up millions from homeowners who thought they were paying to fix construction defects in their homes. Benzer’s name first surfaced on the day the initial search warrants were served (now a few years ago) but — unlike 27 other people who allegedly helped in the scheme — he has never been charged.

That might change in the near future. The R-J reported that it could happen by the end of the year. It might be sooner than that. But here’s the spoiler. Despite all the work that the DOJ and Metro elves have put into the case, to send Leon to a faraway place for a long, long time, there are rumblings downtown that young Leon may not have to serve any time away from home. The millions he allegedly grabbed are nowhere to be found, and there are whispers among the elves that Leon will be able to walk away from this monstrous mess without serving any hard time. Is Santa going to be that generous this year, or is this a rumor that will vanish faster than a plate of cookies left out on Christmas Eve?

Might the elves uncork any other surprises by year’s end? We know for sure that they are working very hard, putting in long hours and that some not-so-fun packages are being carefully wrapped and signed.


A nasty scandal that could generate international news is brewing regarding the National Finals Rodeo. Current and former participants are telling some stories that could tarnish the reputation of the event for years to come. More details soon. … Philanthropist Madeleine Pickens is just back from a week in China. Pickens accompanied Nevada tourism officials in their official delegation to entice Chinese tourists to visit Nevada. Pickens is promoting her Mustang Monument project, a sprawling eco-sanctuary for wild horses near Elko. Here at home, the BLM continues to drag its feet in the approval process for the project, but Pickens isn’t waiting. She already owns thousands of acres and has secured 600 mustangs. Initial reports are that the Chinese can’t wait to see the place, which is the same reaction Pickens got from European tourism officials. … You might not expect former Metro Sergeant Tom Keller to be a sensitive kinda guy, sensitive enough to write a fantasy story called Return of the High Fae, but you would be wrong. Keller’s new book is a Las Vegas fairy tale, but with real fairies, along with elves, vampires and assorted gods. It’s a fun change from what is usually written about Las Vegas, a magical and entertaining read. Not a bad Christmas gift for the readers in your family.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at