Last Saturday, to mark opening day at Suffolk Downs and the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, the owners of the East Boston race track threw a private party overlooking the historic oval.
Guests packed the Topsider Room, enjoying an open bar and a buffet with shrimp, clams, and a carving station. The mayor of Revere was there along with several lobbyists and politicians. But the guest who attracted the most attention, according to several people there, was Stephen P. Crosby, the state’s top gambling regulator, and one of five public officers who will decide whether a casino proposal at Suffolk Downs will get a coveted license worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
“He was turning heads like a runway model,” said one guest.
While Suffolk Downs and its allies said they saw nothing wrong in Crosby’s attendance and noted he paid his own way, others said he should have stayed away as the commission weighs who will receive the Greater Boston casino license.
It was “wholly inappropriate” for the chairman of the state gambling commission to attend the event, said former Massachusetts Inspector General Gregory Sullivan.
“It’s no different than a judge attending an opulent bash thrown by one of the parties in a legal case he’s presiding over,” said Sullivan, now research director of the Pioneer Institute.
But Mayor Daniel Rizzo of Revere, a strong supporter of the casino project at Suffolk Downs, said that Crosby was justified being there as chairman of the commission, which also oversees racing in Massachusetts. “I didn’t find it out of the ordinary,” said Rizzo. “Historically members of the racing or gaming commission have been invited guests.”
The gambling commission has held license applicants to strict ethical standards, grilling casino officials about questionable corporate behavior — and the appearance of impropriety. Crosby has been accused of bias in a federal lawsuit by Caesars Entertainment, which was dropped from an earlier Suffolk Downs proposal after the commission raised red flags in its background checks. The casino giant claims that Crosby should have immediately disclosed his connection to one of the owners of a competing Wynn Resorts project in Everett.
Under the current proposal, Suffolk Downs would lease a portion of the track’s property in Revere to Mohegan Sun for a gambling resort.
The commission expects to award the Greater Boston license later this year. Suffolk Downs representatives have suggested the track will close if the casino proposal on its land does not win the license.
The chairman of Suffolk Downs, William J. Mulrow, said in a statement that “it has been a customary practice here for years to include the state’s racing regulators in our opening day activities. We are careful to ensure that this is done within the appropriate ethical parameters and that we seek reimbursement where required.”
Suffolk Downs said Crosby personally paid $400 to attend the event with other guests, including his wife, other relatives, and friends. The cost reflects a value assigned by Suffolk Downs of $50 per person. None of the other four gambling commissioners attended the event, though several attended a similar event last year.
The room contained artist’s renderings of the proposed Mohegan Sun casino project, planned for land just beyond the track.
“A lot of people were trying to get their 30 seconds with him to advocate” for the proposal, said one guest.
Crosby declined to be interviewed. The gambling commission’s spokeswoman, Elaine Driscoll, noted that the commission, by law, took over the duties of the state racing commission in 2012.
“Since that time, the commission’s Racing Division has made enormous strides in the advancement and implementation of sweeping reforms to the racing regulatory structure in the Commonwealth,” Driscoll said in a statement. “The commissioners are supportive of those efforts and appreciate the dedication of our 25 racing employees. Several commissioners, as part of their official racing regulatory duties, have attended several events at both live race tracks, which includes opening day ceremonies.
“Commissioners individually pay for the cost of attendance at opening day events as Chairman Crosby appropriately did in this instance,” she said. “Attendance at these events is important to demonstrate the commission’s recognition of our racing employees and our constituents in the horse racing industry.”
But a leader of an East Boston citizens group fighting against a casino at Suffolk Downs, said it is hard to have faith in the casino licensing process when regulators are mingling at a lavish party hosted by casino proponents.
“A recurring theme has been blurred lines between the industry that wants to take root in the Commonwealth, and our community specifically, and the folks who are tasked with safeguarding us against it, and overseeing it,” said Celeste Myers, a leader of the group No Eastie Casino. “We’ve got commissioners that are socializing with folks who have applications in front of them. Obviously that doesn’t instill confidence in us.”
“He may have every confidence in himself to remain impartial, but everybody’s looking, everybody’s watching,” Myers said. “I feel kind of like he’s thumbing his nose at us.”
Others attending the event were also surprised when Crosby strode into the private reception and was escorted to a prime trackside table.
“It was odd and there were hushed tones everywhere,” said a consultant who was there.
Caesars Entertainment sued Crosby and others after the company was dropped from the earlier proposal, based on findings by commission investigators linking the company to Russian mobsters.
Caesars criticized Crosby for waiting a year before disclosing a past business and personal relationship with Paul Lohnes, one of the owners of the Everett site, where Wynn Resorts has proposed its casino.
The ownership of that land has been mired in controversy as federal and state prosecutors work to determine whether a Revere developer with a lengthy criminal record has a hidden interest in the property and may profit from the sale of the parcel to Wynn.Frank Phillips of the Globe staff contributed to this report.