Boston Magazine gets only half the story

How biased was the Gaming Commission in favor of Steve Wynn?

BOSTON MAGAZINE’S recent story about the state’s embrace of Steve Wynn and Wynn Resorts tells only half the tale.

The article by Michael Damiano seeks to portray the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and its chairman Stephen Crosby as toadies eager to bend their own rules to land Wynn’s casino in Everett. The commission and Crosby certainly can be criticized for a number of their actions. But to conclude, as the article does, that “Wynn’s casino had nearly everything going against it – except Crosby and the MGC,” is just plain wrong.

Damiano undercuts his own argument when he paints a picture of Steve Wynn coming to Massachusetts a decade ago – before he “joined the unholy pantheon of #MeToo monsters.” Wynn, Damiano reports, took the state by storm. “Back then he was the undisputed king of casinos, the man who personally invented Las Vegas as we know it.”

WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller is quoted saying the Gaming Commission fell under Wynn’s spell. “I sat in a number of those hearings when Wynn was pushing for the license and it was pretty clear to me and others that [they] were in love with the glitz and glamor of Steve Wynn,” he said.

But those hearings on an eastern Massachusetts casino license also revealed that Wynn Resorts had a better balance sheet and a better track record running casinos than its rival, the partnership of Connecticut-based Mohegan Sun and Suffolk Downs. Perhaps Wynn’s biggest advantage – that the company was from Las Vegas and not from around here – wasn’t mentioned at all by Damiano.

During the hearings and in interviews with anyone who would listen, Wynn pounded away at what he viewed as Mohegan Sun’s true goal in the Massachusetts casino sweepstakes.

“The only interest of the Indians is to smother this threat to their main business, where they have billions invested,” he told CommonWealth in 2014. He noted Massachusetts was going to have a 25 percent tax on table games, while Connecticut had no tax at all. He suggested Mohegan Sun would run a mediocre casino in Massachusetts while doing everything in its power to keep the business in Connecticut as strong as possible.

Wynn, by contrast, said he would be Mohegan Sun’s worst nightmare, taking a huge amount of its business away. “To pick Mohegan Sun, if you represent the state of Massachusetts, is an act of gross irresponsibility,” Wynn said.

That was a powerful argument at a time when Massachusetts was entering a New England casino market dominated by Connecticut’s two giants, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. The Gaming Commission faced a tough choice: Go with the entrenched operator from next door, or bring in a Las Vegas developer with a track record for betting big, competing hard, and growing the market.

There were a lot of question marks about the Wynn proposal, particularly in regard to the traffic it would generate, but the overall logic of bringing in a big-time gamer from another part of the country made sense in an era of casino wars among states. Keep in mind how Mohegan Sun responded when the MGM casino started going up in Springfield; Mohegan Sun sought and won permission from the Connecticut legislature to join forces with Foxwoods to open a quickie casino just across the border from Massachusetts to protect the Connecticut casino revenues.

Damiano suggests the commission was biased in favor of Wynn, but then why did it do so many favors for Suffolk Downs? The casino proposal at the horse track, which straddles Revere and East Boston, was dealt a seemingly fatal blow in November 2013 when East Boston residents voted to reject it. But instead of letting the will of the voters prevail, the Gaming Commission allowed the developers to reconfigure their plans so the casino would be located on the Revere portion of the track. That decision angered East Boston residents, who saw it as a violation of state law, but it rescued the Suffolk Downs casino project and kept a Wynn competitor alive.

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 Gaming Commission made much the same point, along with many others, in a detailed rebuttal that described the Boston Magazine article as “remarkable for its exclusions, misrepresentations, and innuendo.” The magazine ran a little blurb about the Gaming Commission’s complaints – which were dismissed as a “curiously defensive rebuttal” – but chose not to link to them or even mention them on the online version of the story.

Crosby has retired amid more allegations of bias and now the remaining members of the Gaming Commission find themselves trying to decide whether Wynn Resorts, in the wake of the serious allegations of sexual misconduct against Steve Wynn, remains suitable to hold on to its casino license. The company has tried to distance itself from its founder. Steve Wynn is gone, and so is his name at the top of the casino under construction in Everett. The company’s powerful legal counsel and most members of the board have also moved on.

Practically, it makes no sense to yank the license on a $2.5 billion project and the thousands of jobs it will create. Philosophically, however, it’s a very tough decision. While everyone awaits the commission’s ruling, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi says she thinks it’s a safe bet that Wynn Resorts will retain the license.