Casinos, recusals, and the optics of ethics

During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton famously told a grand jury, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” To paraphrase Clinton, Massachusetts Gaming Commission chairman Stephen Crosby’s current predicament may hinge on what the meaning of “recuse” is.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “recuse” thusly: “to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest.”

The Boston Globe reported that an as-yet-unidentified individual has provided the State Ethics Commission with a sworn statement alleging that Crosby continued to work with the Gaming Commission on Greater Boston casino applications despite recusing himself from the process.

The Ethics Commission’s preliminary inquiry centers on possible conflicts of interest in the Gaming Commission’s decision to award Wynn Resorts the license to build a casino in Everett on land partly owned by Paul Lohnes, a Crosby friend. Caesar’s Entertainment,which was involved in a competing and ultimately unsuccessful plan at the former Suffolk Downs racetrack, had also pointed fingers at Crosby and his friendship with Lohnes. Crosby has denied any improprieties.

The preliminary inquiry comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who is using every tool at his disposal to put the skids on the Everett casino. The lawsuit, which targets the Gaming Commission and Crosby and asserts that Boston should also be a host community to the Everett casino, contains allegations nearly identical to those contained in the sworn statement sent to the Ethics Commission.

According to the city’s latest complaint: “The Commission’s award of the license was the product of a corrupt process to favor Wynn, which deprived the citizens of Boston of their statutory right to vote on the proposed casino development and caused additional grave harm to the city’s residents.” In a recent WGBH “Boston Public Radio” interview, co-host Jim Braude queried Walsh on the word “corrupt.” Walsh decided not to go there.

Which brings us back to the word “recuse.” Last year, Globe columnist Joan Vennochi opined that Crosby’s recusal was not enough. “Stephen Crosby must go. Everyone knows it,” she wrote. “Crosby can still wield influence even if he can’t vote.”

Candidate Charlie Baker, among others, agreed that Crosby should resign from the commission given the problems associated with the optics of a conflict of interest.

An active, even though preliminary, ethics investigation further clouds the already murky Greater Boston casino hunt. Just as the smoke had cleared over the MassDOT board, Gov. Baker finds himself up against another set of problems created by problematic Patrick administration appointees. As Vennochi concluded, “There’s controversy ahead, with or without a diminished Crosby at the helm.”




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