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Yvonne Abraham

Perilous rolls of the dice

These are supposed to be the lazy days of summer. But for players with ponies in the race for gaming licenses, this week has been extremely not relaxing.

On Monday, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission bared its teeth and bit, declaring Plainridge Racecourse unsuitable to run a gambling operation, nixing the harness track from the competition for a slots license.

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Looking into the track’s finances, the commission’s investigators discovered malfeasance by president Gary Piontkowski so retro it was almost quaint. He had been siphoning cash from the ailing track’s money room for years — to the tune of, oh, $1.4 million.

We’ve seen this movie before, and the ending is always bad. Still, you can’t blame the guy for thinking he’d never get caught. According to the commission, his bosses were blissfully, even willfully, ignorant of his shenanigans. Then, when they could no longer look the other way, they allowed him to quietly resign, citing health concerns. They didn’t even demand the money back. In fact, they gave Piontkowski another $1.8 million for his shares in the company, plus two years’ salary. Gee, I can’t imagine why the commission would question their competence.

For years, Piontkowski put himself out there as the savior of workers in the state’s fading harness racing industry. In fact, his pilfering was speeding its demise.

No one relishes the workers’ suffering, but still it is heartening to see the commission doing its job so well, and so forcefully. That should make my fellow casino queasies happy — and worry those still in the license hunt.

Plainridge’s exit has put the former dog track at Raynham, its bitter rival for a slots license, in a pretty strong position. But though regulators found Raynham a suitable applicant, the vote on one track partner wasn’t unanimous: A few were hung up on the relationship between Robert Green and a disgraced businessman who did time for fraud — even though the two hadn’t done business since 1995. That squeaky clean standard ought to worry the people at MGM, which has proposed a casino in Springfield: The father of an MGM partner in Macau was linked to organized crime, a connection that might be too rich for regulators to stomach.

Vornado Realty Trust, a 20 percent stakeholder in the group proposing a casino at Suffolk Downs, balked at the prospect of the commission’s scathing scrutiny. Vornado, the company that earned Mayor Tom Menino’s ire by leaving that hole at the old Filene’s site, ensured his enmity would be eternal when it refused to submit to background checks, imperiling the entire Menino-backed casino plan.

Vornado transferred its shares to a blind trust, a move that allowed the application to proceed but left the question of who owns the place murky — murky enough that it should make this commission balk until the confusion is cleared up.

For Suffolk Downs, this week brought a double dose of stress: Their proposal, which seemed like a shoo-in a few months ago, has become a flashpoint in the mayoral race. Bill Walczak, the only candidate flatly opposed to a casino, has proposed an innovation district on the site instead. Suffolk DA Dan Conley is aggressively (and rightly) pushing for a citywide vote on the casino, rather than one in East Boston alone, which would be more of a sure bet. The rhetoric has taken a turn, with other candidates now careful to describe casinos as inevitable, but not desirable.

It all has the makings of serious agita in Gamble Land. And that’s as it should be. Most bets, especially the big ones, are losers. The guys who make gazillions from games of chance know that better than anyone.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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