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JOAN VENNOCHI

Crosby’s big gamble

He shouldn’t look like he has a horse in the casino race

State gaming commission chairman Stephen Crosby attended opening day at Suffolk Downs.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

State gaming commission chairman Stephen Crosby attended opening day at Suffolk Downs.

Stephen P. Crosby, the chairman of the state gaming commission, can’t keep himself and his dice cufflinks out of the casino licensing picture, even when he should.

And his willful blindness to appearances is only getting worse.

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As reported by the Globe’s Andrea Estes and Mark Arsenault, Crosby attended a May 3 event at Suffolk Downs, which marked opening day for the race track and the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. Crosby, the state’s top gambling regulator, mixed and mingled with applicants for a coveted license to operate a casino in Revere.

The fact that Crosby paid $50 a person — for a total of $400 — to attend the event with his wife, other relatives, and friends doesn’t improve the optics of this outing.

Crosby’s previous appearance problem sprang from his friendship and past business relationship with the co-owner of a competing Everett site that casino mogul Steve Wynn wants to develop. It took Crosby 10 months to disclose that relationship. Then, appearances worsened when he took part in a telephone call to Wynn, urging him to stick with the application process after Wynn threatened to drop out.

One could argue that showing up at the Suffolk Downs event neutralizes the appearance of conflict with the Wynn/Everett proposal. But given the sensitivity of his position, Crosby should not look like he has any horse in the race — whether it’s Suffolk Downs or Wynn or, for that matter, the anti-casino activists who are trying to repeal the state’s three-year-old gambling law.

The commission’s enhanced code of ethics calls for commission members to recuse themselves “in any proceeding in which their impartiality may reasonably be questioned.” But Crosby has declined to do that, and as usual Governor Deval Patrick stands by his appointee.

The key to public confidence means having a board chair who is above reproach, especially given all the subplots that are swirling around the ongoing licensing process.

Last week, Patrick asked Crosby to delay a decision on whether Boston should get host community status. The request — marking Patrick’s first known involvement in the casino licensing process — followed a courtesy call from Mayor Marty Walsh, informing the governor that Boston was ready to go to court to get such a delay.

Walsh has publicly called upon Crosby to recuse himself from any decisions about licensing a casino in Greater Boston, accusing him of bias against Boston and its efforts to gain a greater financial stake in the two competing casino proposals. Whether or not this amounts to political posturing, why give Walsh more ammunition for any legal action that is likely to follow a decision against Boston as a host community? Or provide Wynn with a rationale for a lawsuit, if the gaming commission’s choice is Suffolk Downs?

Crosby is already a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Caesars Entertainment, the former Suffolk Downs partner that commission investigators declared “unsuitable” to do business in Massachusetts. That suit charges that Crosby’s link to the Everett landowner represents a conflict of interest that harmed Caesars.

As for Patrick, any interference in the process stirs speculation as to which casino proposal he favors and whose ties to the governor might influence the commission’s ultimate choice.

William “Mo” Cowan, Patrick’s onetime chief of staff who was also the governor’s pick for interim US senator, is chief operating officer of ML Strategies, a lobbying powerhouse whose client list includes Wynn. Doug Rubin, Patrick’s longtime political adviser and another former chief of staff, represents Mohegan Sun, which is now partnered with Suffolk Downs. Rubin is also advising the gubernatorial campaign of Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is seeking to keep the casino repeal question off the ballot.

Behind-the-scenes entanglements like these make appearances very important. Crosby clearly doesn’t care, but Patrick should.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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