Five candidates for governor Saturday called on Massachusetts gambling commission chairman Stephen P. Crosby to step down from the panel, just days after he withdrew from deliberations on the Greater Boston casino license amid allegations of bias.
Democrats Steve Grossman, Martha Coakley, and Juliette Kayyem, Republican Charlie Baker, and Independent Evan Falchuk all said Crosby should resign to allow the awarding of the license to move forward without controversy.
Crosby removed himself from the Boston license decision on Thursday, saying that his past actions — including his recent appearance at a private party at Suffolk Downs, a potential casino location — had threatened the panel’s appearance of impartiality. He said he would remain in the job to work on other matters — including the awarding of casino licenses in other regions.
Without Crosby on the five-member commission, Grossman and Baker said they feared the possibility of a deadlocked 2-2 vote.
“When the chairman, who is the voice and the face of the gaming commission, cannot play the critical leadership role he needs to play every day, it undermines the commission’s ability to do its job,” said Grossman, the state treasurer and one of five Democratic candidates. “The commission needs five full time members who are not constrained in any way.”
In statements, the candidates said Saturday that Crosby hadn’t gone far enough in recusing himself.
“Boston is contentious,” said Baker, one of the Republicans running for governor. “The possibility of a 2-2 tie is certainly real. I’ve known Steve for years. He’s a good man, and he’s always been willing to step up and serve the public. But we have a math problem here. They have no provision that I’m aware of to break a tie. It’s obviously important that this one be as clean as possible.”
Coakley said Crosby had “left us without a fully functioning gaming commission. I believe it is critical that we have a fully functioning commission in order to move ahead with the gaming process, and most importantly to get it right. Therefore, he should resign and allow for a replacement to fill that role immediately.’’
Jesse Mermell, a spokeswoman for Governor Deval Patrick, said in a statement Saturday that the governor “continues to believe that the Chairman’s recusal should allow the focus to shift back to the work the Commission is doing to implement the gaming law.”
After Crosby stepped away, gambling commissioner James McHugh took over as chairman when it considers the Boston license. On Saturday, McHugh issued a statement expressing “continued and complete confidence in Steve Crosby’s integrity and ability to lead the commission. The [Greater Boston] license, though important, is just one of many issues before the commission and Crosby’s leadership and energy continue to be of great value to the commission and to the public on the multitude of other matters.”
He also predicted the “extraordinarily cohesive” commission will have no difficulty making decisions without Crosby.
The Crosby controversy is the latest hurdle in the state’s efforts to legalize casino gambling. The commission — which had hoped to issue two licenses by this spring — has faced lawsuits, conflict of interest allegations and a possible ballot initiative that would repeal the casino law. A casino proposal in Springfield by MGM is the only contender for the Western Massachusetts resort casino license, and Wynn Resorts and Mohegan Sun are competing for the sole Boston area license.
Crosby, the former dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston, was named to the post by Patrick in December of 2011. He served as Governor Jane Swift’s chief of staff and was secretary of administration and finance in the Cellucci and Swift administrations.
But the candidates were lining up against his continued presence on the commission Saturday. Kayyem, another of the Democrats seeking to succeed Patrick, said the commission “must be held to the highest of standards. The recent actions of Commissioner Crosby call into question the objectivity of the gaming commission, which is why I believe he needs to step aside.”
Falchuk said participants in the regulation of gambling must be “above approach.”
“Voters have to have confidence that this kind of regulation is independent and appropriate without any appearance of impropriety,” he said.
Democrat candidate Donald Berwick and Independent Jeff McCormick said Crosby’s recusal — not a resignation — was the appropriate action.
“Having Crosby step down would set back the process,” said McCormick’s spokesman, Pete Wilson. “He also thinks it was bad judgment to go to Suffolk Downs’ opening day.”
Patrick, Grossman, and Coakley each have one appointee on the gambling commission. Under state law, the three elected officials jointly appoint the other two commissioners.
Crosby’s action came days after the Globe reported that Crosby and his wife and friends had attended a private party — with an open bar and lavish buffet — at the East Boston racetrack, which has a deal to lease its property in Revere to Mohegan Sun for a casino.
Crosby defended his attendance as a show of support for the racing industry, which the gambling commission also regulates. But that event capped months of criticism by the city of Boston and some license applicants, who accused him of bias in favor of the Wynn Resorts project in Everett. Caesars Entertainment sued Crosby and others last fall, alleging he was biased because he had once been in business with a co-owner of the land where Wynn wants to build the casino.
Crosby has denied the allegations, saying he had never discussed the land with his friend and former partner, Paul Lohnes.
Meanwhile, the gambling commission was sued again on Friday — this time by one of the unsuccessful applicants for a slot parlor license. Raynham Park owner George Carney asked the Supreme Judicial Court to revoke the license awarded to Penn National Gaming for a slot machine parlor at Plainridge Racecourse.
Carney argued that under the terms of the sales agreement signed when Penn National bought the track from Ourway Realty, the seller will continue to make money after the slots parlor opens next year.
The gambling commission found Ourway Realty unsuitable to hold a license.
Under the state’s new gambling law, the suit says, the commission cannot issue a license to an applicant if anyone who benefits from the gambling business has been found unqualified.
“The gaming commission determined, back when this was an issue, to disqualify Ourway,” said Carney. “Yet Ourway is going to participate from a financial point of view. I think it’s a flagrant violation of what the commission has tried to do since day one.”
Penn National’s $225 million proposal won approval by the commission in a 3-2 vote in February. Carney’s proposal received no votes.
Last summer, state investigators found that president of the Plainridge team, Gary Piontkowski, had taken more than $1 million from the track’s money room and Ourway Realty was banned from the slots competition. The lawsuit says that under the terms of the agreement between Ourway and Penn National, Ourway will continue to receive payments each fiscal quarter “in perpetuity” based on a percentage of Penn National’s earnings.
The commission declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying its officials hadn’t yet seen it.