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Gambling panel needs shakeup, critics contend

The decision by the state’s top gambling regulator to remove himself from the debate over Greater Boston casino proposals is casting doubt among some observers and critics about the viability of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Stephen P. Crosby, chairman of the commission, said his past actions and judgment were becoming a distraction and a threat to the panel’s appearance of impartiality.

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Crosby’s decision Thursday came days after a Globe report about his attendance at a party celebrating the opening of the racing season at Suffolk Downs, which has joined with Mohegan Sun to pursue a casino license. That report followed other actions by Crosby raising questions about his ability to lead the commission.

Gregory Sullivan, a former Massachusetts inspector general who had been urging Crosby to remove himself from the Greater Boston decision, said it may be time for him to step down completely as commission chairman.

“The governor and the Legislature went to great lengths to make this process above reproach,’’ said Sullivan, now research director for the conservative Pioneer Institute think tank. “The fact he has recused himself from [Greater Boston casino] decisions is to me acknowledging that he’s been operating in a conflictual role. I think the governor should seriously consider replacing him.”

Governor Deval Patrick did not respond to a reporter’s question about whether Crosby should resign from the commission. His press office instead referred to a previous statement by Patrick declaring his belief in Crosby’s “unwavering commitment to the integrity of the commission’s work.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who lost a critical bid to have Boston considered a host community for proposed casinos in Everett and Revere, said Crosby had become irrelevant, and the mayor raised doubt about whether the commission could function well without him.

‘We are a largely cohesive group, and we operate largely by consensus.’

James McHugh, state gambling commission 
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“For all intents and purposes he resigned’’ from the Boston-area debate, the mayor said of Crosby. “When he recused himself from the vote, he’s no longer a factor.”

Crosby has defended his attendance at the Suffolk Downs soiree as a show of support for the racing industry, which is regulated by the gambling commission. He said he paid his way, spending $400 to attend with relatives and friends. But he acknowledged he did not consider how his presence might strike the public.

For months, Crosby had come under fire for possibly violating the same strict ethical rules that the commission applied to applicants.

Boston officials and others, including Walsh, had called on Crosby to remove himself from further deliberations over the Suffolk Downs proposal and a bid for an Everett casino by gambling mogul Steve Wynn.

Last fall, Caesars Entertainment sued Crosby and others, alleging he was biased against the company because of his ties to one of the owners 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.

James McHugh, who is taking over for Crosby during discussions of the Greater Boston license, defended the commission’s path forward.

McHugh contends state law requires just three commissioners for a quorum for meetings and decisions, which has happened in the past when commissioners were sick or absent.

Still, it remained unclear what would happen if the four remaining commissioners deadlocked in a vote.

“I am not sure how this will work,’’ said state Representative Carlo Basile, an East Boston Democrat.

McHugh said the commission will address any impasse as it has historically, by making persuasive arguments, talking through sticking points, and coming to an agreement.

“Mechanically, in terms of the way the law operates, there is no problem at all,’’ McHugh said. “We are a largely cohesive group, and we operate largely by consensus.”

McHugh rejected calls for Crosby to resign completely, saying the Greater Boston license is just one of the issues before the panel.

He said the commission will meet on a license for a Springfield casino next week, convene to address jobs and diversity at a Plainville slot parlor, and continue to address “cutting edge” horse racing. “We have a really robust . . . agenda, and [Crosby] has been a driving force in that,’’ McHugh said.

Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor and casino expert, said that while Crosby’s actions might have raised eyebrows, they were not dishonest. He said he believes the impartiality of the remaining commissioners remains intact. “This certainly has tarnished the public’s perception of Crosby, but the whole commission is a different story,’’ McGowan said.

Clyde W. Barrow, a policy analyst at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, agreed that Crosby’s decision will have little impact on the commission.

“I don’t think this shakes the confidence of the entire commission,’’ he said. “But this still leaves open the possibility that you end up with a 2-to-2 split vote’’ on the license, Barrow said. “Then what do you do?”

The commissioners who remained after Crosby removed himself Thursday unanimously rejected Boston’s bid for host community status, which gives municipalities the power to decide the fate of casino projects through binding referendums.

Walsh vowed Friday to press the issue, saying the people of Charlestown and East Boston deserve to have a say on the Everett and Revere casinos.

“It’s tricky right now, and there’s a lot of moving pieces,” Walsh said. “We are going to continue to discuss it over the weekend and into next week to find out what the best option is.”

Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com.
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