The first sitting federal judge in U.S. history to be imprisoned for a crime committed while he was on the bench. The first federal judge impeached by Congress in a half-century. It has an ominous sound to it, conjuring images of bribes paid in alleyways, of august figures in black robes sullying their offices for sordid payoffs. And, indeed, the case against U.S. District Court Judge Harry E. Claiborne of Nevada contained those elements as the Department of Justice laid it out in December of 1983. Claiborne, the DOJ said, violated his office in exchange for bribes of less than $100,000 paid by notorious brothel owner Joe Conforte. Then he lied on his income tax returns for two successive years to cover up the ill-gotten loot.
But, as Michael Vernetti makes painfully clear in his unsettling book Lies Within Lies: The Betrayal of Nevada Judge Harry Claiborne the federal government fell far short of proving the claims made in its indictment. Conforte’s story was a tissue of lies, concocted to buy his way back to the U.S. from a foreign hideaway and to virtually wipe clean a criminal record laden with transgressions. The feds eventually convicted Claiborne, but it was for relatively minor misstatements on his income tax returns, errors Claiborne argued forcefully were the result of his own unconcern over filing his taxes and blunders made by two different tax preparers.
This 90,000-word book has extensive chapter notes, a bibliography, index and numerous photographs. It lays out the misguided assumptions, gullibility and malice of Claiborne’s federal pursuers, and shows how they were duped by the cunning Conforte. Using never-revealed information gleaned from Freedom of Information Act inquiries, a careful evaluation of the grand jury proceedings and two trials it took to bring Claiborne down, and an extraordinary investigation of the Justice Department’s case undertaken by Nevada’s Supreme Court, Lies Within Lies challenges the reader’s faith in the DOJ’s ability to live up to its own name.