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Shirley Leung

Charlie Baker saying little about ethical cloud over Steve Crosby

Steve Crosby, chairman of the state gambling commission, recused himself from deliberations on the Boston area’s casino license to fend off allegations of bias. He faces state ethics questions.
Steve Crosby, chairman of the state gambling commission, recused himself from deliberations on the Boston area’s casino license to fend off allegations of bias. He faces state ethics questions.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file 2014/Globe Staff

What will Governor Charlie Baker do with gambling commission chairman Steve Crosby?

Well, candidate Baker knew exactly what to do. He’d make him resign.

“Boston is contentious,” said Baker last May, after Crosby recused himself from the five-member commission’s deliberations on the area’s casino license to fend off allegations of bias.

“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,” Baker added. “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.”

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Crosby survived, only to face more conflict of interest claims unearthed by my Globe colleague Andrea Estes. This week Estes reported that the State Ethics Commission has launched an inquiry into whether Crosby actively participated in the Boston license discussions after removing himself from the proceeding.

The license ultimately went to Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, who wants to build in Everett on land owned by Paul Lohnes, Crosby’s former business partner. Crosby has denied any wrongdoing.

But now that he’s in charge, Governor Baker is not so quick to say off with the chairman’s head. I guess what’s said in a campaign stays in a campaign.

In fact, Baker is staying so far away from Controversial Crosby that the governor didn’t even want to get on the phone to talk about it.

Cue the spokesman-issued statement: “The governor is confident that the Ethics Commission will handle this serious issue appropriately and looks forward to reviewing the commission’s findings.”

Why is Baker holding back? So unlike him. When he’s not happy, the ax falls.

After the MBTA’s winter of shame, Baker remade the state transportation board. After a disastrous rollout of the Health Connector website, he shook up the board. Wary of spending $1 billion to expand the Southie convention center, he overhauled the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority board.

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Even before Crosby’s ethics probe, Baker could have nudged the gambling panel chairman aside and nobody would have thrown up their poker chips in protest. Crosby has been caught in the cross hairs for a while.

Two years ago, he raised eyebrows when he didn’t readily disclose his ties to Lohnes, who had a deal to sell land to Wynn.

Then last May Crosby attended a private party at Suffolk Downs, another casino license applicant, which he revealed only after the Globe broke the story. (That’s what prompted Crosby to recuse himself from the Boston license process.)

So here’s why the 70-year-old chairman is still in the game: If Baker ousted Crosby, the governor would need to own gambling, and that is probably the last thing he wants to do.

Remember, Baker already has his hands full with the T and the projected $1.8 billion budget shortfall. The difference is that those are problems he relishes fixing. Taking on slot machines and blackjack, not so much.

You see Baker was never fond of building gambling palaces. Candidate Baker talked about how he would have preferred the state to have just one casino. Where to place that bet? Springfield, an economically depressed city that perhaps only lady luck can turnaround.

It makes complete sense for Baker to wait for a ruling from the ethics commission.

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If Crosby is found in violation, the governor will have no choice but to ask the chairman to collect his chips and go. Then Baker will really have to own the gambling issue — not only picking a new chairman, but also dealing with any fallout from a potentially compromised casino licensing process.

But if Crosby is cleared, the governor may even have a more difficult decision ahead.

The governor appoints the gambling commission chairman, and Crosby is halfway through his seven-year term in what could be the most thankless and treacherous post in state government.

But here’s the problem: A cloud continues to linger over Crosby and his relationship with Lohnes. The City of Boston has sued the gambling commission claiming the process was rigged for Wynn, in part because of Crosby’s ties.

Crosby may have recused himself from the Boston licensing process, but he probably should continue to remove himself from matters related to that casino until the lawsuit is resolved.

If that happens, then you have a chairman who can’t be involved in what is expected to be the biggest casino in the state.

That would leave Baker with a gambling commissioner who plays by the rules but may not be as effective as he should be. Can the governor live with that?


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.