There’s a new hand on the tiller at the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB).
Governor Steve Sisolak’s office announced the resignation of Board chair J. Brin Gibson yesterday. Gibson had informed the Governor of his intentions earlier in the year, but the public announcement was delayed until his departure was imminent.
Gibson’s replacement will be Board member Brittnie Watkins. She received Gov. Sisolak’s appointment to the Board in April 2021. As reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Watkins will be the second Black woman to chair the NGCB after Sandra Douglass Morgan.
Gibson didn’t give a reason for his departure. In a release, he said only:
I am humbled and honored to have served as chair of the Nevada Gaming Control Board at this critical moment for Nevada. I am proud of the work we have accomplished, and I know there is so much more ahead for my colleagues. I want to thank Gov. Sisolak for giving me this opportunity, and for his leadership and support over the years.
He had been chair for almost exactly two years, having received his appointment on Nov 18, 2020. However, it hasn’t been uncommon for NGCB chairs to remain in the position for only a short time. Watkins will be the fourth since 2018.
Three of those last four chairs have been women. Before that, there had never been a female chair – and only one previous female member of the Board. Now, both Nevada regulatory bodies will have women leading; Jennifer Togliatti is the current chair of the Nevada Gaming Commission (NGC).
Different Professional Backgrounds
Watkins has an impressive academic and professional track record. At the same time, she comes to the position via a fairly different path from Gibson.
Gibson previously served as general counsel to the Governor’s Office, and Gov. Sisolak has referred to him as a friend. Before that, he was chief of the Gaming Division at the Nevada Attorney General’s office. He also had a brief stint in the private sector between working at the Governor’s office and his appointment as Board chair.
According to the Review-Journal, Watkins has multiple degrees in law and psychology and a veritable laundry list of academic honors. In 2020, she became the first Black woman to be elected to the State Bar.
At least recently, she has spent more time than Gibson working in the private sector. Before joining the NGCB, she was an attorney for Pisanelli Bice, which has been named among the “Best Law Firms” by the website Best Lawyers every year since 2011.
Pisanelli Bice describes itself as specializing in high-stakes “bet-the-company” litigation. Its past clients include many of the top Las Vegas casino industry companies, such as MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts.
The NGCB’s Role as Regulatory ‘Prosecutor’
It’s worth noting that despite having the same name, Nevada’s Gaming Control Board fulfills a slightly different role than Gaming Control Boards in other states. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, for instance, those Boards are the sole regulatory authority for the gaming industry.
Nevada has two regulatory bodies: the Control Board and the Commission. Broadly speaking, the Board usually serves in an advisory capacity for matters like licensing while the Commission makes final decisions. When it comes to wrongdoing, the Board’s role is analogous to a state prosecutor, while the Commission is analogous to the court system.
That makes the difference in Gibson and Watkins’ respective backgrounds interesting. Working for the Attorney General’s office, Gibson had experience prosecuting the gambling industry. Conversely, working at Pisanelli Bice, Watkins would presumably have been advocating on behalf of those companies.
It’s hard to say whether that will make any difference in the Board’s approach. There are upsides and downsides to “switching teams,” as it were. In the world of criminal law, it’s an ongoing matter of debate whether former prosecutors make better or worse defense attorneys than those who’ve been defenders their entire careers.
Watkins’ background may give her a balanced perspective. An overly aggressive regulator can be as bad as a too-lenient one, as the UK is currently discovering, so understanding the industry’s point of view should be helpful. At the same time, she’ll need to be meticulous about avoiding any suggestion of a conflict of interest when dealing with former clients.