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Gambling commission lacks casino experience

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Enrique Zuniga, James F. McHugh, Stephen Crosby, Bruce Stebbins, and Gayle Cameron make up the new commission.

The newly formed state gambling commission, whose final two members were appointed yesterday, is heavy with experience in law, politics, and public finance, but has little expertise in the casino industry it must license and regulate.

Commissioners will have to overcome steep learning curves under tight deadlines, writing the regulations that will govern casino gambling in Massachusetts, while preparing to solicit bids from casino companies eager to invest billions of dollars in the state in pursuit of even greater gambling profits.

Governor Deval Patrick called the panel “strong, complete, and ready to get on with the business of creating jobs for Massachusetts.’’ Treasurer Steven Grossman, who also played a role in the appointments, said the members’ expertise was “both deep and diverse.’’

But the panel’s relative lack of casino expertise will increase pressure to hire a professional staff that understands the gambling and hospitality industries, said Clyde Barrow, a gambling specialist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who was surprised by the absence of such expertise on the commission.

“You wouldn’t put someone on the nuclear regulatory agency who doesn’t know anything about nuclear energy,’’ he said.

The new members named yesterday are Judge James F. McHugh, 68, who served on both the Superior Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court from 1985 until his retirement this year, and Bruce Stebbins, 46, business development administrator for the city of Springfield. Stebbins is a former Springfield city councilor and was an aide to President George H.W. Bush, according to a biography supplied by the state.

Under the casino law, Patrick, Grossman, and Attorney General Martha Coakley jointly filled the final two slots on the five-member panel yesterday, naming McHugh and Stebbins just ahead of today’s deadline for all members to be appointed.

The new commissioners join chairman Stephen Crosby, appointed by Patrick; Gayle Cameron, a former New Jersey State Police lieutenant colonel named by Coakley; and Enrique Zuniga, named by Grossman, on what is formally known as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

A rigorous appointment process has long been seen as a critical part of state officials’ efforts to avoid the corruption that has plagued other states that have entered the gambling fray. The intense scrutiny and relatively low salary drove away some possible candidates who were under consideration for the commission.

Under state law, one of the two jointly approved members announced yesterday was required to have “experience in legal and policy issues related to gaming.’’ Neither McHugh nor Stebbins has this experience, so the state officials, after the fact, made Cameron, who oversaw investigations of Atlantic City casinos during her law enforcement career, one of their joint appointees.

McHugh will now officially serve as Coakley’s pick, meeting the attorney general’s mandate to choose someone experienced in “criminal investigations and law enforcement.’’

The law also suggests that one of the joint appointees have “professional experience in gaming regulatory administration or gaming industry management,’’ but lawmakers did not make that experience mandatory, and Patrick, Coakley, and Grossman did not comply.

Instead, they concluded that Stebbins brings other qualities that are more important, such as economic development experience and knowledge of the terrain in Western Massachusetts, where one casino will be located. Those factors and others “outweighed trying to perfunctorily find someone who might have some policy or gaming experience,’’ Coakley said in an interview. “We took seriously what the Legislature said, particularly where they gave us discretion, and I’m really convinced this is a strong commission.’’

Experience in the industry is not critical for someone on a regulatory board, said Jim Kilby, a California-based casino consultant.

“I would rather have someone who is exceptionally bright than someone with experience who isn’t,’’ said Kilby, a former gaming operations officer for the Chickasaw Nation tribal casinos in Oklahoma. He said the board will need to hire the proper expertise and legal advisers.

Scott Harshbarger, former state attorney general and an outspoken casino critic, praised the new panel yesterday as a “cast of independent, credible, respected appointees,’’ untainted by the influence of the casino industry.

The full commission gathered publicly for the first time yesterday to meet with reporters. Each acknowledged having little or no recent experience at gambling.

Crosby has admitted that for Christmas last year, just after his appointment, a relative gave him “Casino Gambling for Dummies.’’

“None of us is a very active gambler,’’ said Crosby, who has raised concerns about the tight deadlines the commission will face. “I don’t think that is a critical variable in the process. We will hire a staff of people . . . who have very detailed knowledge of this.’’

McHugh said he liked to play blackjack when he was in the US Navy and remains “fascinated by the ambience’’ of casinos.

“I didn’t take this job because I’m a gambler,’’ McHugh said. “I took this job, this position, to see if I could help make sure the benefits of this process accrue to the people of the Commonwealth . . . I don’t think my gambling or lack of gambling personally will have an impact on that.’’

The new commission will soon begin to hire staff and expert help, establish an office, and begin hosting public meetings to solicit recommendations. McHugh, of Boston, is a former adjunct faculty member at Boston College Law School and Northeastern University School of Law.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and graduated magna cum laude from Boston University School of Law. He said he has presided over more than 600 civil and criminal trials.

Stebbins has worked for the city of Springfield since 2010. He previously worked at the National Association of Manufacturers and the Massachusetts Office of Business Development.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.

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