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Metro

Gambling official to headline casino talk

Event sponsors include lobbyist

Stephen Crosby said the ethics board approved his appearance at an event next week.

The head of state’s new gambling commission, who earlier promised to avoid association with anyone who has “any vested interest’’ in a casino proposal, will headline a gambling forum next week sponsored by a casino lobbyist.

Stephen P. Crosby, a Beacon Hill veteran and dean at the University of Massachusetts Boston, was tapped by Governor Deval Patrick to lead the gambling commission last month, a position that will entail issuing casino licenses for the new multibillion dollar industry.

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Critics said Crosby’s participation gives the perception of favoritism and coziness between the industry and the commission, whose other four members have not yet been selected.

John Ribeiro, president of Repeal the Casino Deal, said Crosby’s attendance “illustrates the coziness that exists between the government and the casinos.’’

But Crosby said he consulted the State Ethics Commission before deciding whether to speak at next week’s event at the Westin Boston Waterfront, titled: “Spinning the Wheel: What the Industry Means for the Commonwealth.’’

He said he accepted the invitation because he wants to include casino interests as he starts a broader conversation with the public about how the industry can benefit the state. He said the Ethics Commission cleared his participation because he will not be paid and the event is open to the public.

“It’s a fair issue’’ to raise, he said. “This thing is going to be filled with these kinds of judgment calls.’’

The event is being hosted by NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate trade group, which will charge $85 for nonmembers to attend.

One of two sponsors listed on the invitation is ML Strategies, the lobbying firm representing Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, who is proposing a $1 billion casino resort in Foxborough.

The panel also includes Stephen P. Tocco, a registered lobbyist and the president of ML Strategies, as well as Troy Stremming, senior vice president of Ameristar Casinos, which is proposing a $500 million resort casino in Springfield.

“I’m not going to say anything at NAIOP that I haven’t said to the reporters all over the state,’’ Crosby said.

After answering questions from the Globe yesterday morning, Crosby called back to say he had called NAIOP and requested that he be allowed to speak separately from the other advertised members of the panel, to avoid the perception of chumminess.

The event invitation shows a picture of a roulette wheel and promises to address “who the leading contenders are and what they are proposing.’’ But Crosby insisted he will not weigh in on that topic.

“If they think I’m going to be speculating who’s up and who’s down, that clearly would be inappropriate,’’ he said.

He said his earlier promise to avoid talking to casino interests applied to private conversations.

“We’ll be talking to lots of people in public settings who have interest in this,’’ Crosby said, referring to the gambling commission. “That will be the nature of our business.’’

The commissioner said he will formally disclose the interaction with Patrick if and when Ameristar and Wynn file casino applications with the gambling commission.

The governor’s spokesman, Brendan Ryan, declined to comment on Crosby’s involvement.

State Senator James B. Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton and a leading casino opponent, said the event’s $85 ticket price, and the fact that the invitation went out to the commercial real estate industry rather than to the general public, does not fit his definition of a public event.

“The chair of the gambling commission needs to be careful that meetings that he’s having on the issue are open to the public and not just for a select few,’’ Eldridge said.

Even some casino supporters were caught unaware and expressed frustration that two proposals appeared to have the upper hand.

“Everyone should have equal share, equal say, representation,’’ said Jennifer Baruffaldi, spokesperson for the Citizens for Jobs and Growth, which supports a casino in Palmer. She said she did not know about the event until the Globe called.

“We believe competition is healthy but everything’s got to be fair here, too,’’ she added.

Ribeiro, of the Repeal the Casino Deal group, said Crosby’s participation illustrates “poor judgment’’ because the commission is not yet set up, its regulations not yet issued.

“He’s explaining to casino operators how they can get a license before he’s going to the people to explain how he’s going to protect us,’’ Ribeiro said.

Suffolk Downs, Wynn’s top competitor for a casino license designated for the Greater Boston area, declined to comment on the event. Tocco did not respond to requests for comment.

Stremming responded in an e-mail, saying: “We will take any appropriate opportunity to speak in the public domain about the benefits of gaming coming to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We will offer information and answer questions the public may have regarding gaming in any appropriate public setting as this event is open to the public.”

David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP, said Tocco is attending primarily as a moderator and has been asked to present all publicly known casino projects, without pitching his own. Casino representatives were invited to speak at the forum “not about their specific site but about the industry viewpoint’’ on broader topics, such as the expected competition with Connecticut casinos, he said.

Begelfer said Tocco and Stremming are not gaining an advantage by participating in the event with Crosby and that several other developers had turned down invitations.

“I don’t think sitting on a stage, gives you the edge to all the sudden get a massive $500 million casino,’’ Begelfer.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

This story has been updated to include a quote from Troy Stremming, senior vice president of Ameristar Casinos. Stremming was not initially available for comment, but subsequently provided an e-mail response for this story.

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