During last week’s casino hearings, the chief investigator for the state gambling commission revealed that a longtime business partner of the felon Charles Lightbody stands to make more than $1 million from the sale of land in Everett to Steve Wynn for a casino.
On Sept. 8, investigator Karen Wells said Jamie Russo would receive 3 percent of the land proceeds for work as a “consultant slash lobbyist.” A commission attorney also said that one of the three owners of the land, Anthony Gattineri, who had initially borrowed money from Lightbody, had paid him back with interest in June.
The gambling commission, which will begin final deliberations Monday on competing applications from Wynn in Everett and Mohegan Sun in Revere, subsequently reaffirmed that Wynn was a suitable applicant. But at least one longtime commission critic says that Russo’s emergence suggests that Lightbody, who has a long history of assault charges and a fraud conviction, could still be involved in the land deal despite extensive efforts to drive him out.
“These are profoundly serious problems for the gaming commission,” said Greg Sullivan, the former state inspector general and now policy director for Pioneer Institute, a think tank.
“The attorney general’s office should be investigating. The whole process is mired in controversy and the whole process should be suspended until this can be fully investigated,” he said.
Russo has a long history of close cooperation with Lightbody, once cashing in chips at Foxwoods casino when Lightbody won more than $100,000 in what casino regulators said was a bid to evade federal treasury authorities, and possibly taxes. This year, Russo moved to buy a strip club near the casino site after Lightbody boasted in a taped conversation with a prison inmate that he had acquired the place.
A spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who last week accused the gaming commission of ignoring the Everett land ownership controversy, repeated Walsh’s call to delay this week’s vote on whether Everett or Revere should host the Boston area’s only casino.
In an e-mailed statement, gambling commission spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll said the commission conducted a “thorough” investigation and “reaffirmed” Wynn is “suitable in all respects.” In addition, the panel found the owners of the land will have no involvement in casino operations if Wynn receives the license.
Driscoll noted that “suitability is always open for reexamination.”
The commission previously has taken pains to ensure that Lightbody and another onetime partner in the land deal don’t profit from Wynn’s proposed $1.6 billion casino, even requiring the three principal land owners to sign a declaration that no one else will benefit from the $35 million land sale.
Wells last week said that Russo refused to speak to investigators, but two of the land owners, Dustin DeNunzio and Paul Lohnes, told investigators Russo didn’t have a contract. DeNunzio couldn’t say whether Russo would receive 3 percent of the profit or the gross proceeds of the land sale.
Russo’s lawyer, Martin Weinberg, said his client is “a legitimate entrepreneur and businessman. He’s been listed by the owners as a consultant.”
Russo, he said, declined to speak to commission investigators on his advice.
“Mr. Russo is neither an owner of the land or an applicant for a casino license and had no obligation to assist in a gaming commission investigation,” Weinberg said.
Timothy Flaherty, Lightbody’s lawyer, said Russo’s involvement in the land deal has nothing to do with Lightbody.
“Charles Lightbody and James Russo are business associates who have been involved in various deals for the past several years; in every instance, their transactions have been conducted within the spirit and letter of the law,” said Flaherty, insisting that Lightbody transferred his interest in the land before Wynn offered to buy it in December of 2012.
The third owner, Gattineri, who borrowed $1.7 million from Lightbody to purchase his interest in 2012, repaid the debt with interest in June — two days before he filed his statement swearing that no secret owners would benefit from the land sale, according to gaming commission general counsel Catherine Blue.
For more than a year, state and federal investigators have been looking at whether one or more criminals have hidden interests in the 30-acre parcel along the Mystic River where Wynn wants to build his casino.
Last year, the gaming commission and the Globe disclosed that Lightbody, a Revere businessman with a four-page Massachusetts criminal record, owned a piece of the land and although he claimed to have sold his interest before Wynn optioned the property in 2012, investigators were skeptical.
On March 23, 2001, Lightbody drew the attention of investigators when he won $101,500 playing craps and then gave chips to Russo and two other friends to cash in.
“During this visit Lightbody won $101,500 but was observed using [Russo and the two other men] to cash out his chips in order to avoid CTR (cash transaction) requirements,” according to casino records obtained by the Globe.
Weinberg would not explain why Russo cashed in Lightbody’s chips except to say “Mr. Russo has never engaged in any scheme with anybody to evade taxes.”
But nine years earlier, Russo was banned from Foxwoods after he was arrested with four other men and charged with larceny, forgery, and criminal impersonation in connection with a credit card fraud ring at the casino, court records said.
In November 1993, Russo pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of larceny in the fourth degree, according to court records, which included a sentencing note that read, “Stay out of Foxwood [sic] Casino.” Lightbody was banned from Foxwoods in 2004 and Mohegan Sun in 2013, according to casino documents obtained by the Globe. The bans are still in effect.
Last year, Russo signed papers to buy the notorious King Arthur’s strip club in Chelsea, located close to the casino site.
When Lightbody’s role as an owner of the potential casino land was exposed, he told a friend in a taped prison conversation that he had found a side avenue to profit from the casino anyway — a secret ownership of King’s Arthur’s.
Russo and DeNunzio were listed on records as buying the club, though their efforts have been thwarted by Chelsea city officials. Concerned that criminals might be taking over the club, they revoked the club’s liquor, nude entertainment, and innholder licenses in late July.