Rendering unto Caesars

Suffolk Downs entered the Massachusetts casino sweepstakes dripping with inevitability . It was the bidder that had the backing of Boston’s mayor. It was the track the House speaker used to hang around as a kid. The combination of gerrymandered-looking casino region boundaries and a special exemption from the state casino law’s municipal referendum requirement all but cleared the field for Suffolk.

Now, with just two weeks left before Election Day, The Suffolk Downs casino bid looks as vulnerable as it’s ever been.

East Boston casino opponents staged a show of force yesterday, with local religious leaders likening the casino business to “ravenous wolves.” They rallied in the wake of Friday’s blockbuster news that Caesars Entertainment , the would-be operator of East Boston’s casino, was withdrawing from the Suffolks Downs casino proposal. “It shows you there’s something sinister … about this whole process,” one of the rally’s organizers, Pedro Morales , told the Globe . “It’s not opinion. There’s evidence now, clear evidence, that this deal had something unsavory about it.”

According to multiple reports, Caesars exited the Suffolk casino deal after state investigators raised tough questions about a partner Caesars had a licensing deal with in a Las Vegas casino. The firm in question allegedly has ties to the Russian mob. State gambling officials made no official determination about whether Caesars could be a partner in a Massachusetts casino, but the static over the company’s background check caused Suffolk Downs’s developers to throw Caesars overboard .

The Globe also reports that, in addition to the possible financial relationship with the mob, Massachusetts regulators also raised questions about a $127 million gambling binge — allegedly fueled by alcohol and pills — that occurred in Caesars-operated Las Vegas casinos in 2007. New Jersey gambling regulators fined Caesars $225,000 for failing to stop that binge earlier this year.

Earlier, Massachusetts regulators disqualified the owners of the Plainridge Racecourse from bidding, after discovering that the track’s former boss had been routinely withdrawing cash from the facility’s money room. Steve Wynn , who’s eyeing a casino in Everett , appears concerned that his Macau operations — the subject of civil lawsuits and federal investigations , but no formal complaints — could cause him headaches with local regulators.

Caesars CEO Gary Loveman shot his way out of his home state, telling Bloomberg Businessweek, “It’s going to be very hard for anyone to pass” the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s background checks. He added to the Globe , “It’s going to be very difficult for sophisticated, multi-jurisdictional operators to tolerate the environment this commission has created.” But Loveman’s statements are belied by the fact that several would-be gaming operators, including Raynham Park , Mohegan Sun , the Cordish Companies , and Penn National , have already passed the same background check that Loveman’s firm stumbled over.

Loveman’s former dance partners at Suffolk Downs are now left scrambling to find a new operating partner, two weeks ahead of their November 5 referendum date. “Now they have to find a new operator of the casino and they have to do it in record time,” Mayor Tom Menino told WBUR yesterday. Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle added, “The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is clearly setting rigorous standards here, we have no problem with that. We have always been ready to meet those standards and earn a license.”

Still, Tuttle’s firm is left with a major perception problem. If it can’t find a new casino operator in the next two weeks, Suffolk will be asking voters to approve a gambling facility without knowing who will be running it. And if they can sign up a new partner over the next several days, Suffolk will be peppered with complaints from casino opponents that, given the way Caesars unraveled, the neighborhood needs more than a few days to vet the new team. In today’s Herald , John Nucci argues that November’s East Boston casino referendum has been rendered “meaningless,” and that there’s “nobody in the driver’s seat of this careening chariot, and the vote is right around the corner.” As Loveman himself said last year , in happier times: “This is not something for the faint-hearted.”



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