Count on the Boston Herald to put in plainly: the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is “an agency rife with potential conflicts that go far behind the much-publicized ties of Chairman Stephen Crosby, with several staffers linked to people in the hunt for coveted gaming licenses,” Herald reporter Jack Encarnacao recently wrote.
Encarnacao examined ethics disclosures made by people connected to the commission and found that several—including Commissioner Bruce Stebbins, a former Springfield city councilor and economic development official for the city; General Counsel Catherine Blue; Director of Administration Eileen Glovsky; and Ombudsman John Ziemba—“have had business or social relationships with people involved with companies seeking licenses.”
The article followed the disclosure that Crosby is an old friend and former business partner of Paul Lohnes, owner of property in Everett where Wynn Resorts wants to build a casino. Casino company Caesars has sued the MGC, alleging that Crosby exhibited bias against its proposal for a casino at the Suffolk Downs race track because he favored Lohnes’ proposal. Suffolk Downs dropped Caesars as a partner this fall over concerns about the likelihood of its passing a MGC review.
The other conflicts flagged by Encarnacao ranged from minor (Glovsky once belonged to the same country club as the owner of Suffolk Downs, but says she never met him) to substantial (she had a 10-year relationship with an attorney representing two casino applicants). In Stebbins’ case, Encarnacao noted campaign contributions he received as a city councilor: $400 from Frank Fitzgerald, an attorney for MGM, and $300 from Peter Picknelly, whom the Herald described as “ an affiliate of the group behind the casino.” (Picknelly, a partner in Penn National’s failed casino proposal in Springfield’s North End, is now, according to the Springfield Republican, “working on a transportation plan with MGM and some real estate opportunities with the casino company.” His brother Paul is an investor in the MGM project.)
The Herald isn’t the first to question Stebbins’ impartiality; in December, the grassroots Citizens Against Casino Gaming called on him to recuse himself from voting on MGM’s application. At the time, I contacted Stebbins for a response; he didn’t reply. A MGC spokeswoman sent me a statement saying that Stebbins has “complete confidence in his ability to conducted himself impartially” and asserting the commissioners’ “strong commitment to transparency and integrity.” Stebbins went on to join a unanimous vote in support of MGM’s proposal.
In my opinion, Stebbins’ donations from Picknelly and Fitzgerald don’t amount to especially smoky guns. Both are prolific campaign contributors; it would be more remarkable to find a Springfield politician who hasn’t received a check from the two at some point. Still, given the heavy-handed way the casino legislation was pushed through (remember how formerly anti-casino lawmakers eventually caved to pressure from Democratic leaders?) and the ever-worsening fiasco of the Crosby lawsuit, it’s hard to fault casino opponents for feeling skeptical about the integrity of the process.•