Gaming Commission: Boosterism or bias?

Your perspective depends on your view of the agency

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is taking a lot of heat from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and others for failing to be objective, but the perception of bias may stem from differing views about the appropriate role of the commission.

Walsh and other critics of the commission want it to act much like an impartial jury, carefully weighing the evidence in any dispute and then ruling on the merits, even if that means an applicant is turned away. But the commission members appear to view their role differently. As they see it, their primary goal is to license three casinos and a slots parlor. They want to fairly and openly handle any disputes that arise along the way, but they start with the presumption that their overriding mission is to get the gambling industry in Massachusetts up and running, and the sooner the better.

“We are an administrative agency. We’re not a court of law,” said Stephen Crosby, the chairman of the Gaming Commission.

Crosby himself became a victim of the competing perceptions of the Gaming Commission. He recused himself from all Greater Boston casino decisions after attending a party earlier this month celebrating the opening of the Suffolk Downs racing season. To many, Crosby’s attendance at the party seemed an odd thing to do given that the commission is about to grant a casino license in the Greater Boston area and one of the companies competing for the license wants to build the project on land owned by Suffolk Downs. Yet Crosby justified his presence at the party by saying it is part of his job to promote horse racing in Massachusetts, an industry overseen by the commission.

Crosby said the two guiding principles of the commission are to follow an open process and to encourage robust competition for licenses. He said the pursuit of competition doesn’t mean the commission is trying to oust casino applicants from the process or keep them in. “Our job is to weigh equities and keep the ball rolling forward compatible with the law,” he said.

The commission’s philosophy has come into play repeatedly in making decisions involving the Greater Boston casino license. For example, the agency notified Suffolk Downs last October that its casino partner, Caesar’s Entertainment, might not pass the commission’s background check. That notification gave Suffolk Down time to change horses, so to speak, dumping Caesar’s and joining forces with Mohegan Sun.

The commission adopted a similar approach when confronted with the possibility that someone with a criminal background could benefit from the sale of land in Everett to Wynn Resorts. The Gaming Commission didn’t reject the Wynn application. Instead, it worked with Wynn to address the problem, first by allowing the casino developer to cut the sale price on the land to eliminate any casino premium and, second, by requiring all of the land holders to sign an affidavit stating that no one else would benefit from the sale. That second requirement hasn’t been satisfied yet.

The Gaming Commission ventured into slightly different territory with its recent ruling on Boston’s bid for host community status for both of the proposed casinos in Everett and Revere. The commission ended up voting 4-0 against Boston, but only after agency officials privately dealt with a lease provision that could have made the decision go the other way for the Mohegan Sun casino.

Host community status hinges on the geographical location of the casino and any hotel, restaurant, or other amenity. Boston and the group No Eastie Casino argued that Suffolk Downs was an amenity to the proposed Mohegan Sun casino, but the commissioners were skeptical. Commissioner James McHugh, a former judge, said he felt an amenity had to enhance the value of the casino and be owned or controlled by the casino developer.

McHugh’s definition disqualified most outside venues that entered into marketing partnerships with the casino, but Suffolk Downs was another matter, particularly since the lease agreement between Mohegan Sun and Suffolk Downs contained a clause that allowed Suffolk Downs to turn over the operation and management of the money-losing track to Mohegan Sun at any time. If that provision was exercised, Mohegan Sun would control the Suffolk Downs race track.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The commission had ruled the lease a trade secret, so only the commission and the parties to the lease were aware of the controversial provision. Shortly before its initial ruling on Boston’s bid for host community status, the legal counsel for the commission contacted Suffolk Downs to raise questions about the provision. Suffolk Downs responded to those concerns by eliminating the provision.

Matt Cameron, an attorney who works with the group No Eastie Casino, likened the action of the commission to a judge or a judge’s clerk calling a defendant prior to the beginning of a trial and telling the defendant what he needs to do to be cleared. “I don’t think that’s fair,” Cameron said.

But the commissioners don’t necessarily see themselves as judges and they don’t see the casino applicants as defendants. The commissioners see themselves as regulators whose goal is to get casinos up and running. There is a natural tension between how the commissioners see their role and how the general public views it, a tension that seems bound to crop up again.