Healey: Wynn plays by a ‘different set of rules’
AG defends her casino position -- but gets some facts wrong
ATTORNEY GENERAL MAURA HEALEY sent a letter on July 13 to state Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack calling for an independent study of the traffic impact of the proposed Wynn Resorts casino in Everett. The move raised eyebrows, particularly because the attorney general is an ardent opponent of casinos and her office has no official role to play in the transportation review of the casino project.
But now Healey is raising more than traffic concerns, suggesting in an interview with CommonWealth that Wynn has been allowed to play “by a different set of rules.” Healey said the Massachusetts Gaming Commission awarded Wynn a casino license before the developer had completed its state environmental review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, typically known as MEPA. She described the arrangement with Wynn as unprecedented, a case of putting the cart before the horse.
“The way it’s supposed to work is MEPA certification is done and then the license would issue,” she said in the interview. “It’s important that people keep in mind that this has been an aberration from the outset.”
Healey went on to say that the MGM Springfield casino followed the correct path, obtaining its MEPA certificate before receiving its license.
MGM and Wynn both obtained their conditional licenses on November 6, 2014. MGM went on to receive its MEPA certificate on December 31, 2014. Wynn recently submitted its third application for a final environmental permit, which the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs is scheduled to rule on by August 28.
An official with the attorney general’s office acknowledged Healey was mistaken about MGM, but expressed doubt about whether the casino licenses issued to Wynn and MGM were actually conditional. The official noted the two companies each paid $85 million in fees to the Gaming Commission after receiving their licenses. Wynn paid on November 6 and MGM paid on November 17. The Gaming Commission insists the casino licenses were conditional on the applicants obtaining MEPA certificates and other permits.
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview with Healey, conducted last Thursday in her Boston office on the 20th floor of 1 Ashburton Place.
COMMONWEALTH: Why have you taken a strong interest in the transportation problems associated with the proposed casino in Everett?
MAURA HEALEY: We’re here today because this has not been the normal process for a project. This stems from the decision to award a license and have MEPA certification follow. That’s unprecedented. The way it’s supposed to work is MEPA certification is done and then the license would issue. It’s important that people keep in mind that this has been an aberration from the outset. Basically, it’s gotten us down the road where there have been complications and problems along the way. You may remember that when the Wynn proponents first went before the state last year they were denied [an environmental permit]. It [their filing] wasn’t good enough. They went back to the drawing board and came back to the Baker administration and again they were told it wasn’t good enough. That was in April. Separate and apart from that, the MBTA land deal was deemed to be a violation by two cabinet secretaries in the administration. Basically, the Wynn developer has had the opportunity to play by a different set of rules from the beginning of this process, rules that other private developers haven’t been allowed to play by. I think that’s important to remember.
CW: What rules are you talking about?
HEALEY: If you are a Walmart or some other developer, like Assembly Row, you had to complete a MEPA certification, you had to go through the process first, to then be given the opportunity to go forward with the project. Here that process was reversed, and all I’m saying is we need to get it right. With this project coming, it is really important that Wynn not be held to different standards than any other private developer in this state – and, frankly, the standards that were articulated just three months ago. Remember, in April, in the letter that the administration sent to Wynn that said your traffic study, your MEPA materials, are not good enough, they said a few things in addition to that. First of all, they said the project, as proposed, we don’t think it’s compatible with existing plans for Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue. They said that. That hasn’t changed, even in light of the new submissions. The second thing the Baker administration said was that it was important that Wynn do what hasn’t been done yet, which is bake in a long-term mitigation plan. That hasn’t happened either, even with this supplemental submission. The third thing the secretary [of energy and environmental affairs] said was we have to have a multi-stakeholder process. We have to have stakeholders at the table. We need the state. We need the city. We need others at the table for this to work. That hasn’t happened.
HEALEY: All I’m saying is that in the face of these things not happening it doesn’t mean you change the rules to fit the situation. There were good reasons those were articulated as basic ground rules back in April. I’m sorry that for whatever reason those things haven’t happened, but don’t just change the rules because things aren’t lining up. There is a process in place for a reason, albeit it’s been an imperfect one because, again, the license gets awarded and MEPA certification follows. Everything is sort of done with a move toward completion of the MEPA certification process, and I don’t want corners cut in the process because we are going to have to live with the long-term impacts of this project. It is important that we get it right.
CW: Does Boston Mayor Marty Walsh deserve criticism?
HEALEY: Do I think it would be helpful if Boston were at the table? Yes. Am I willing to work to encourage and facilitate that? Absolutely. But in the interim, it doesn’t mean everything gets a pass and we’re just going to blow through this. The fact remains that we’ve got a project that’s been proposed that’s incompatible with existing plans and it’s going to exacerbate an already highly problematic traffic situation that has impacts not only on public safety but regional economic development, transit, major issues. And now is the time to get it right. I understand that it would be easier to have all stakeholders at the table. As I say, I would facilitate that. But it doesn’t mean that we put aside that process and just move forward. Once we do that it will be very hard to remedy these things.
CW: How does your personal opposition to casinos affect your stance?
HEALEY: This is not about Charlestown. This is not about a not-in-my-backyard mentality. This is about the very real issues presented by this development that have not been addressed. Somebody needs to make sure that they get addressed. Nowhere does the proponent, the developer, identify what a long-term mitigation plan is going to be. There is no discussion of the impact on I-93, save for improvements around the immediate vicinity. The number of cars coming in and out of the city along that major interstate roadway is significant. We know that his casino is going to be placed in a highly densely populated urban setting with major traffic issues and congestion that already exist. These problems are going to be exacerbated. We need to get it right, right now. I don’t think it’s happened to date. We just need to make sure it happens. I want them to be held to the rules of the process that were set up earlier this spring.
CW: If the Baker administration doesn’t respond the way you want, would you sue?
HEALEY: Look, the attorney general’s office enforces environmental laws and gets involved representing agencies following any number of determinations, including MEPA determinations. Our office has defended MEPA determinations when challenged by developers or other parties. So we have a role in this, but I’m trying to deal with this not through a litigation lens. Let’s all come to the table and get this right, and make it work. We’re in the midst of an imperfect process and now’s the time to make it work.
CW: Do you want to see casinos get built?
HEALEY: I respect the decision of the voters last fall. They approved casinos. The fact that I was opposed to casinos during the campaign doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do my job as attorney general. This is about making sure the rules are followed and the public interest is protected. Specifically, because casinos are going forward, we’ve got to make sure the right things are done. That’s what this is about.
CW: Do you think Everett is the wrong place for a casino?
HEALEY: I’m already long on record as this not being a good spot for a casino for a variety of reasons, but that’s beside the point. At this point, this is the location. This is the location that the Gaming Commission has chosen. This is what we’re working with. My own views on casinos are in many ways irrelevant. I do find it ironic that all of these other private developers have to play by a certain set of rules, but we’re going to have a different set of rules for a casino operator. We’re going to have a different set of rules for Steve Wynn. That’s what really is going on here. And I don’t think that’s right. I think that Steve Wynn and casino operators should be held to the same rules as everybody else. They shouldn’t get a pass and they shouldn’t be allowed to play by a different set of rules, which is exactly what’s happened with this process.
CW: When you were doing your research on traffic issues in the area of the proposed casino, who did you and your staff talk to? I know you talked to Fred Salvucci, the former secretary of transportation.
HEALEY: I know they talked with former secretaries of transportation, others who have worked in that field and that space. Certainly, state agency traffic folks. Certainly, the folks over at CTPS [Central Transportation Planning Staff]. I’m just the attorney general. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I understand the importance of informed decision-making. The point of reaching out and talking to people is to understand exactly what is going on.
CW: Who do you blame for the current situation?
HEALEY: I’m not going to speak to how we got here because I wasn’t around. I came into office in January. What I do know is that the process has been unprecedented and I don’t think it’s fair that Wynn or any casino operator comes in to the state and is allowed to play under a different set of rules than others looking to do development here. Look at what Springfield and MGM are doing along I-91. They agree that, given changes to I-91, which is not nearly as heavily trafficked as 93, they need to delay in order to get the traffic right. Why wouldn’t that be the case for Everett in terms of what needs to happen. Plainville, of course, is a different scenario. There wasn’t a traffic issue there. There wasn’t a reason for us to weigh in there or in Springfield because those were addressed through a process. I think anyone looking at Plainville or Springfield can recognize the difference between those locations and this location right here.
CW: Did MGM receive its MEPA certificate before it received its casino license?
CW: Tell me about your conversations with Mayor Walsh on the casino issue.
HEALEY: We talked over the last several months about issues related to casinos. The lawsuits that the city and other cities have brought have been against the Gaming Commission. We made an analysis and determination of what our role is going to be, given that we have parallel criminal prosecutions and investigations going on. We talked about the casino in Everett and casinos generally, sure. But he and I didn’t have a conversation about this or our conversations with Energy and Environmental Affairs, the Department of Transportation, or about the letter we sent.
CW: How did [Secretary of Transportation Stephanie] Pollack respond to your letter?
HEALEY: She and I spoke after we sent the letter in. We agreed that we’d continue the conversation.
CW: Do you intend to submit comments on Wynn’s environmental impact statement?
CW: Have you talked with officials from Wynn?
HEALEY: Our team and staff have talked to the developer and his team. I’ve met with the Wynn team. I haven’t spoken directly with Steve Wynn. We sat down. We heard from them. We went over materials they submitted to us. My door is always open.
CW: Thanks, I think I’m all set.
HEALEY: Can I just say one more thing about the whole casino thing? I came to this with a strong view about the role of the AG as someone who is going to be willing to look at the facts and act in ways that serve the public interest. I take that responsibility seriously. I did not come to this position with a tremendous amount of political support or establishment support. One of the reasons I got elected is because people believed that I would bring a certain level of independence to this. That’s all we’re trying to do here. I find some of the comments about me as a Charlestown resident, Mayor Walsh is my mayor, the relationship, it’s sort of like…. This is about me being the attorney general for the state and not one neighborhood or a city or a region.
CW: Do you think it’s unfair for journalists to point out where you live and your opposition to casinos?HEALEY: That’s not what I meant. To the extent that people think I’m carrying water for the people of Charlestown or the mayor of Boston or the residents of a particular neighborhood, it’s just not the case. I bring with me an independence and a commitment to looking at the facts, the data, the law, and common sense as a problem solver. Right now we’ve got a problem over there. We’ve got a problem and somebody’s got to fix it. Of course you can mention I’m from Charlestown. Of course you can mention that I was against casinos. It’s all fair game. It doesn’t control what I do. It doesn’t influence what I do. Do I have a particular understanding of I-93 and Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue because I travel back and forth to Assembly Square or Home Depot or the Christmas Tree Shop? Yeah, I do, because I live there and shop there and the like. But the traffic in that area preceded my time and tenure as a Charlestown resident and hasn’t gotten any better. So I think that anybody who attempts to travel up and down 93, you see the backup on to 93 from the Sullivan Square exit. It’s a little scary and dangerous, so I think I’m pointing out something that’s clear on its face to anyone who travels on I-93, not just anyone who happens to live in Charlestown.
Check out Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s enthusiastic support of Healey here.