The chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission removed himself Thursday from the debate over casino proposals in Greater Boston, acknowledging that his recent actions, including his attendance at a Suffolk Downs party, have raised questions about his impartiality.
Stephen P. Crosby made the stunning announcement, then left the commission’s public meeting at which the remaining four commissioners unanimously rejected Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s bid to have Boston considered a host community for proposed casino sites in Everett and Revere.
Walsh, who has tried unsuccessfully to reach agreements with both Mohegan Sun and Wynn Resorts that would give Boston residents more say over the projects, was disappointed with the commission’s decision and is “considering all options,” including a lawsuit, said a person close to the mayor.
“The commission’s announcement seemed predetermined because after three hours of testimony, they only took 10 minutes to arrive at a decision,” Walsh said. “I have said — and I truly believe — that Boston is a host community to both sites, and I intend to continue to do everything in my power to protect our best interests. The people of East Boston and Charlestown deserve the opportunity to vote.”
Host community status gives municipalities the power to decide the fate of casino projects through binding referendums.
The 4-to-0 decision came after the lengthy meeting at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center that started with Crosby’s announcement removing himself from further casino decisions in the Boston region.
James McHugh took over as chairman after Crosby said that he and the other commissioners regard safeguarding the panel’s integrity as a top priority. But Crosby acknowledged that he had become “a distraction and potential threat to our critical appearance of total impartiality.”
“Over the past several months, my behavior and judgment concerning the parties to the [Greater Boston] decision have been questioned, sometimes in good faith, sometimes in bad faith,’’ Crosby said. “Frankly, neither I nor any of the commissioners have any doubt about my ability to be impartial in the decision-
After Crosby withdrew, Governor Deval Patrick, who had criticized the gaming chairman for attending the party Saturday at Suffolk Downs,issued a statement praising Crosby’s “unwavering commitment to the integrity of the commission’s work.
“I hope this allows the focus to return to the commission’s efforts to implement the gaming law in [Greater Boston],” Patrick said. Suffolk Downs is the proposed site of the Mohegan Sun casino.
For months, Crosby has come under fire for possibly violating the same strict ethical rules that the commission has applied to applicants. Boston officials and others, including former Massachusetts inspector general Gregory Sullivan, had called on Crosby to remove himself from further deliberations in the Boston region.
Last fall, Caesars Entertainment sued Crosby and others, alleging he was biased against the company because of his ties to one owner of the Everett land where Wynn wants to build a casino. Suffolk Downs dropped Caesars as its casino development partner after state investigators raised concerns about the gambling company.
In its suit, Caesars criticized Crosby for waiting a year before disclosing that he and the Everett landowner, Paul Lohnes, had been business partners and were still friends.
Sullivan hailed Crosby’s decision to remove himself, though said it should have come sooner.
“The Legislature put extra tough ethics standards on the Gaming Commission that barred a commissioner from voting on a matter involving someone he had a previous business interest with,” Sullivan said. “It would have been proper for him to recuse himself from the beginning, through I’m glad he at least has done it now.”
The Boston Globe reported this week that Crosby attended a private party at Suffolk Downs celebrating opening day at the track and the Kentucky Derby. Guests were treated to an open bar and a full buffet. Suffolk Downs officials said Crosby paid $400 to attend with seven other guests, including his wife, other relatives, and friends. None of the other gaming commissioners attended.
After the story was published, Patrick, who appointed Crosby in 2011, criticized him for attending the party, calling it unwise for an official who was about to decide whether to issue a casino license to Suffolk Downs worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
“I imagine that, based on some of the reaction to it, he’s going to be thinking twice in the future,” Patrick said.
Though Crosby had defended his attendance as a show of support for the racing industry, by Wednesday night the commission spokeswoman issued a statement from Crosby expressing regret.
At a brief meeting with the reporters Thursday, Crosby said he came to the decision to remove himself at 10 a.m. Thursday and insisted Patrick’s criticism played no role.
Crosby, who had resisted calls to recuse himself or step down, said he saw nothing wrong with attending the racing event but acknowledged he did not consider how it might appear once it was reported. “It did not pass the sniff test in how that would appear in The Boston Globe,’’ he said.
“The right thing to do is to recuse myself,’’ he said, adding that people will have to make up their own minds about his actions.
He said the complaints he has fielded so far have been “nothing but noise,’’ insisting they had little substance.
Crosby said he was terribly disappointed about leaving, noting the complex issues that remain regarding the proposed Everett and Revere casinos.
With that, Crosby departed, and the hearing resumed.
In voting against Boston’s effort to win host community status, the commission said it was a “decision in principle” to once and for all settle the issue of whether Boston should have more say over the casino projects that touch the city’s borders. The commission will put its decision in writing later, McHugh said.
“Under the law, host community status is basically a geographical judgment,” McHugh said after the vote. “If you look at where physically the casino is going to be, all of the diagrams, all of the maps, put the casino in Everett or Revere, and not in Boston. So, really, the decision is very straightforward.”
After the vote, Wynn Resorts and Mohegan Sun issued statements pledging to work with Boston to develop “surrounding community” agreements, which would give the city less say and less money than if the city were declared a host.
“We are pleased with the outcome of the Gaming Commission meeting and their preliminary decision of surrounding community status for the City of Boston,’’ said the Wynn statement. “We look forward to concluding a surrounding community agreement with the city soon.”
Said Mitchell Etess, chief executive of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority: “We remain committed to continuing the productive discussions we’ve had with the City of Boston, and to reaching a comprehensive surrounding community agreement.”