Sunday, January 12, 1997
Support your local sheriff

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Q&A with Si Leis

Q. Is Hustler magazine still illegal?

A. ''Yes. The trial took six weeks and was based on 11 issues of the magazine. The jury convicted him.

''He has threatened to bring it back. I can assure you that if he brings it back, my men will pick it up and bring charges. ... I have no doubt that if the case is handled right, he will be convicted again.''

Q. How did you feel about being portrayed by former Clinton adviser James Carville?

A. ''Unbelievable. I never knew he was an actor.''

Q. Whom would you choose?

A. ''I'm not into that Hollywood scene much. (Laughs.) Maybe Tom Cruise.''

Q. Did you get an invitation to the movie?

A. ''I received several.''

Q. Are you going?

A. Silence. Hard stare. Slight smile. ''You gotta be kidding.''

Q. What do you think of the way the movie compares Larry Flynt to Charles Keating?

A. ''Charlie Keating had nothing to do with the trial. He was just a man who stood up to say what was wrong.''

Q. What do you think of Larry Flynt now?

A. ''He's a sicko, that's what I say. I'm reminded the man is a sicko because normal people wouldn't do what he's done.''

The double-tough, poison-on-porn lawman who ran Larry Flynt out of business, out of Cincinnati and directly to jail was once just a snapshot away from appearing in Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine.

Hamilton County Sheriff Si Leis still shakes his head and laughs ruefully about how close he came to having his picture in the skin magazine that he successfully prosecuted as criminal obscenity in 1977, as Hamilton County prosecutor.

''It was a bad scene,'' he says, thinking back. ''They had a mayors' conference in Cleveland, to discuss the blight of obscenity on cities. I was invited and took my first assistant, who is now Judge Fred Cartolano. I made my talk, and we're sitting in the back, listening to the other speakers, when this gal appeared and identified herself as a lawyer for some city out West. She said her city was having an obscenity problem and wanted to talk to me, one-to-one, to ask how we handled it.

''So Fred and I went down to the bar in the hotel, and she shows up, and suddenly there's this second gal. . . . About halfway into the conversation it changed and became very personal. Fred and I realized at about the same time that something was funny. He caught my eye, and I caught his eye, and we excused ourselves.''

That night at a reception, they saw the two women again - ''dressed to kill, just dressed to kill and working the room,'' he said. ''We steered clear.

''And sure enough, later when I got back home, I got a call from a police chief in Missouri. He said, 'You gotta help me, my mayor's in deep trouble. My mayor's going to be in the next issue of Hustler.'

''And damn if the next issue didn't come out and there was this mayor, his arms around these two gals, and they had a business card he gave them with his room number on the back. There at this conference on obscenity.

''I could have innocently allowed my picture to be taken. I could have innocently given them a business card.''

And if he had done that, the prosecutor who was fighting a trench war to rid Cincinnati of Larry Flynt's termite mound of porn and corruption would have been cut off at the knees - tried and convicted in colorful Hustler photos: first-degree hypocrisy.

The sheriff is tough. He has little patience with the way Cincinnati shakes its head, goes ''tsk-tsk'' and pretends he's just some lonely caped crusader of community standards - voters have overwhelmingly supported their local sheriff for 10 years, and backed him as a straight-shooting judge and white-hat prosecutor before that. So he gets scratchy sometimes.

But not even his rabid enemies call him a hypocrite. And although Hollywood chose a truth-defying Houdini from the Clinton Circus, James Carville, to play him in the movie, the name is L-E-I-S, not I before E. The sheriff is no liar.

The story of that slimy honey-trap hustle does not appear in the movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt, that premiered in Cincinnati last week so Oliver Stone's new Great American Hero, Larry Flynt, could come back and ''tweak his nose'' at the Queen City.

Here's another thing Hollywood won't tell you: Larry Flynt was a contagious, sexually transmitted disease in Cincinnati.

''If he had not been stopped, he would have corrupted the whole town,'' the sheriff says. He won't go into details - ''It's like opening old wounds,'' he said. But when Larry Flynt was busted on charges of public sodomy and discharging a firearm during a sex act at a downtown bar, an investigation of two vice cops who were present unraveled a snarled web of Cincinnati Police corruption that eventually led to prosecution and convictions of vice cops and the chief of police, Carl Goodin.

Chief Goodin's 1976 conviction for perjury and tampering with evidence was reversed on appeal in 1978.

But the ugly picture is that Larry Flynt had cops in his pocket. And although the movie mocks Mr. Flynt's conviction for organized crime, it was no joke.

''His start-up money came from organized crime figures in Cleveland,'' the sheriff says.

So where would Cincinnati be now if Si Leis had not drawn a line at the city limits to set community standards?

''Adult book stores. Massage parlors. Adult movies,'' the sheriff says. ''And yes, corruption.''

Instead, Cincinnati is famous for being a buttoned-up family town with a grateful shortage of degrading sleaze. ''You can bring your kids downtown and walk around without being afraid,'' the sheriff said. His office is in a building that people call ''The Justice Center'' - without any cynical winks or crooked wiseguy grins.

In Cincinnati, The People vs. Larry Flynt is Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville. It's shopkeepers in a tumbleweed town hiding behind locked shutters vs. Gary Cooper in High Noon.

But those are old Hollywood scenes. Corny. Unhip. Not cool. Today, Hollywood's ''best'' movie is about a child-molesting, heroin-shooting, religion-jeering moral arsonist who sold his own wife in centerfolds to make a buck hustling human flesh. Larry Flynt was depraved when the word was still an insult. Nobody has done more to degrade our culture in so many ways that we're all learning to regret. His ''victimless lifestyle'' was a cancer of social decay.

And now he's a Movieland ''success'' because he won a First Amendment battle in court.

''I'll be honest,'' the sheriff said. ''The way the media treats him as a hero - it's an outrage. I'm flabbergasted. That's my biggest disappointment.''

I'll be honest, too. I agree.

Making a First Amendment hero out of Larry Flynt is like watching Moses part the Red Sea, then falling on your knees to worship the oozing mud it was covering. The real miracle is not Larry Flynt - the miracle is a Constitution that tolerates even weevils like him to avoid contaminating our liberties with pesticide.

Hollywood can rewrite reality and make it look like the people lost vs. Larry Flynt. But the sheriff who cleaned up Cincinnati has no doubts.

''We won. He's not here in this town. There is no corruption anymore, no massage parlors, no adult book stores. People who move here don't want to leave. It's safe, a good place for a family. What more do you need to say?''

Just one thing:

''It all depends on how you measure success.''

Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.