Gaming panel meets on Springfield casino process
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) -- Springfield officials on Tuesday strongly defended their hiring of a casino consultant that performs lobbying work in another state for two of the companies seeking to build a resort casino in the western Massachusetts city.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which has final jurisdiction over the awarding of casino licenses under the state's new gambling law, met in Springfield to discuss the city's plan for whittling down a list of at least four and as many as six casino bidders. The process, announced last month, has been clouded by questions of a possible conflict involving the consultant, the Chicago law firm of Shefsky & Froelich.
The firm has acknowledged it has lobbying contracts in Illinois with MGM Resorts International and Penn National Gaming, and has also performed work in the past for Hard Rock International. A fourth company eyeing Springfield, Ameristar Casinos, has objected to Shefsky & Froelich advising Springfield in light of its connections with the other companies.
Michael Schaller, a partner in the law firm, said it fully disclosed the relationship with MGM and Penn National Gaming when seeking the consulting contract with Springfield, and later sought an opinion from the state Ethics Commission as to whether state conflict-of-interest laws were violated.
The city was fully aware of the relationship with the casino companies when it hired the consultant, and welcomed that kind of experience, said city solicitor Edward Pikula.
"We knew we were going to be getting the same kind of firepower as the casino companies have," Pikula said Tuesday. "Certainly, if you are negotiating and you are going to be dealing with tactics and strategy from the industry, you have to know what is coming."
Some members of the five-member state gaming commission seemed uneasy about the relationship between the consultant and the would-be Springfield developers. Stephen Crosby, the panel's chairman, called Shefksy & Froelich an "outstanding firm" but warned that even if there proved to be no violation of state law, just the appearance of a possible conflict could erode public confidence in the integrity of the casino selection process.
"We need to be as transparent ... and as squeaky clean in this process as we possibly can be," said another commissioner, retired appeals court judge James McHugh.
Schaller told the panel that Shefksy & Froelich's lobbying work on behalf of MGM and Penn National Gaming in Illinois was largely limited to advising the companies on regulatory issues, and represented less than one-half of 1 percent of the firm's revenues.
Only one lawyer in the firm performed the work for the two casino companies, Schaller added, and that individual was "completely walled off and isolated from all information concerning Springfield."
Both Schaller and city officials said they expected the Ethics Commission to rule there was no conflict, but they were vague about what action they might take if the commission decided differently. Schaller suggested his firm might end its relationship with MGM and Penn National Gaming rather than risk termination of its contract with Springfield.
The Gaming Commission asked Springfield to slow down its timetable for choosing a casino developer, citing worries that the city could negotiate a host community agreement and put it before voters before the commission even had a chance to prequalify the developer on financial grounds. Such a scenario, however unlikely, might result in the selection of a developer that was barred from applying to the state for a casino license.
But Mayor Domenic Sarno and other officials said there would be no holding back, telling commissioners that Springfield must move quickly to take advantage of the competition between developers and maximize economic opportunities for a city that was ravaged by a tornado less than 15 months ago.
"We are in a unique situation," said Sarno, adding that he intended to "smoke out who are the contenders and who are the pretenders going forward."