1983 Arrest


fugitive joseph conforte turns himself in

April 3, 2021 – by Oscar Dey Williams


A week before Joseph Conforte fled the United States in December 1980, he called U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Anderson in Las Vegas and offered Judge Harry Claiborne’s “head on a silver platter” for a deal to avoid prison. Joe said he would call again but did not. Instead, he skipped over the border into Mexico and went onto Brazil, avoiding five years in prison by doing so.

Carnivale came and went.

Roughly six months after turning fugitive, Conforte made overtures to the FBI about his bribery of Judge Claiborne.

A series of meetings took place between Conforte and agents of the IRS, FBI, and the Department of Justice-Public Integrity Section: twice in Rio de Janeiro, once in San Juan, Costa Rica, and once in Acapulco.

Conforte had filed a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court to contest the ruling of the U.S. Tax Court and was denied on January 12, 1983, setting a legal precedent on limits to a fugitive’s rights—a case oft-cited in courtrooms across the country. Joe Conforte had seemingly lost, but in a twist of fate, after his writ was denied he became the Justice Department’s star witness to nail Judge Harry Claiborne.

A plea bargain agreement was reached that offered Conforte a reduced sentence and immunity for acts of bribery of a federal judge in exchange for his sworn testimony.

On December 4, 1983, Conforte flew from Rio de Janeiro to Miami and was arrested by federal authorities. He next flew to Washington D.C., where Judge John L. Smith Jr. agreed to dismiss charges from 1980 of jumping bail and failure to appear in Reno’s federal court, and to lower Conforte’s five-year sentence for tax evasion. Conforte then flew to Reno, Nevada.

Conforte testified before the Reno federal grand jury on December 7th about giving two cash bribes to Claiborne: $30,000 to stall the FBI’s voter fraud probe, and $55,000 to influence his tax evasion conviction or sentence.

Days later, Conforte returned to Washington D.C. for re-sentencing before Judge Smith who imposed fifteen months of incarceration, contingent on Conforte’s further cooperation and truthfulness in the government’s case against Claiborne. Conforte was then shipped to federal prison in San Diego.

Based on Conforte’s testimony and other evidence, Judge Claiborne was charged with bribery, filing false income tax returns, and making false statements to the Judicial Ethics Committee in a seven-count indictment.

“I have never taken an illegal penny on the judicial bench,” ~Judge Harry E. Claiborne

At Harry Claiborne’s trial, in March 1984, Conforte again testified, but unlike a grand jury, which is merely the prosecution’s side, here Claiborne was able to defend himself. Claiborne swore his innocence during his testimony. He successfully refuted the date and location of the first bribe Conforte alleged to have made. He denied most of Conforte’s details of the second alleged bribe. At the end of the day, both bribe claims were Joe’s word against Harry’s, and Conforte was a tax-evading pimp behind bars who had a lot to gain from implicating the federal judge. The trial of the Honorable Harry Eugene Claiborne ended in a mistrial.

The taxes that Joe and Sally Conforte owed the IRS amounted to $25 million. In what some people felt was a major coup, though more likely the result of extensive litigation and reassessments, the IRS shaved nearly $17 million off that—a sixty-eight percent reduction.

Joe Conforte was released from federal prison on December 10, 1984, having served twelve months of his fifteen-month sentence of what was originally a twenty-year sentence. It was his birthday. He was fifty-nine.

Judge Harry Claiborne was retried sans the bribery charges and was convicted of tax evasion. He was subsequently jailed and impeached. He was the first federal judge to be jailed and the second to be impeached in U.S. history.

Christ of the Andes, Rio de Janeiro
Carnivale performer











Joseph Conforte, 1983



Judge Harry Eugene Claiborne (Nevada)








  • Michael Phillis, “Conforte offered judge’s ‘head on platter,’ FBI says,” Reno Evening Gazette, November 2, 1982, page 1
  • State Bar of Nevada vs. Harry Eugene Claiborne, Supreme Court of Nevada, No. 17294, filed May 18, 1988
  • James Phelan, Gary Thompson and Jeffrey M. German, “FBI, Conforte profit in deal,” Las Vegas Sun, October 7, 1982, pages 1, 4
  • Jeffrey M. German, “Conforte teams with feds to get Judge Claiborne,” Las Vegas Sun, September 14, 1982, pages 1, 13
  • Helen Manning, “Conforte located in Brazil; officials studying extradition,” Reno Evening Gazette, March 31, 1982, pages 1 and back
  • Joseph Conforte vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 459 U.S 1309 (1983), A-584 Rehnquist’s opinion
  • Patrick O’Driscoll (GNS), “Brothel owner wants to return to Brazil,” Reno Gazette-Journal, December 16, 1983, pages 1 and back
  • Dick Cooper, “Conforte plea bargain disclosed,” Reno Gazette-Journal, February 25, 1984, pages D1-2
  • Wayne Melton and Michael Phillis, “Conforte arraigned,” Reno Gazette-Journal, December 7, 1983, pages 1 and back
  • Wayne Melton, “Ex-fugitive spends 3 hours with jurors,” Reno Gazette-Journal, December 8, 1983, pages 1-2
  • Ken Miller, “Conforte loses bid for early parole,” Reno Gazette-Journal, October 9, 1984, page D1
  • Michael Phillis, “Role reversal for Judge Claiborne,” Reno Gazette-Journal, December 11, 1983, pages C1 and 8
  • James Phelan, Gary Thompson and Jeffrey M. German, “FBI, brothel boss pursue U.S. judge,” Las Vegas Sun, October 6, 1982, page 1
  • Ken Miller and Michael Phillis, “Conforte’s bribe story,” Reno Gazette-Journal, March 20, 1984, pages 1 and 5
  • Wallace Turner, “Judge, taking stand, denies accepting bribes from brothel owner,” New York Times, April 3, 1984
  • AP, “U.S. Frees Brothel Owner,” New York Times, December 13, 1984
  • Peter Aronson, “Harry Claiborne’s Spectacular Fall Destroyed Storybook Legal Career,” The Recorder, April 4, 1988, pages 1, 10, 15-17
  • Michael Vernetti, Lies Within Lies, Las Vegas: Stephens Press, 2011, e-book ISBN: 978-1-935043-36-2
U.S. Senate impeachment trial of Harry E. Claiborne on C-SPAN:
  • https://www.c-span.org/video/?150519-1/claiborne-impeachment-hearing-cross-examination
  • https://www.c-span.org/video/?150502-1/impeachment-proceedings

Topics:    American brothel owners and madams  |  Fugitives wanted by the United States  |  Rights of federal judges  |  Impeached United States federal judges  |  Oscar Dey Williams