Calling out the MBTA for rushing the sale of a sliver of land to gambling mogul Steve Wynn may not sound like much. But it could lead to the unraveling of Wynn’s plan to build a casino in Everett. Pull that thread, and the entire project starts to come undone.
In March, Wynn Resorts said it had finalized the purchase of 1.75 acres from the T in Everett for $6 million. The land was described as Wynn’s “preferred” entrance to the $1.6 billion gambling resort he was granted a license to build by the state gambling commission. To be blunt, Wynn preferred that entrance because he wanted a front door to the casino that wasn’t in Boston. As long as Wynn had a non-Boston route onto the Everett property, he would not have to treat Boston as a host community. By avoiding that stipulation, he avoided the financial obligations that go with it. He also wouldn’t have to face a local Charlestown referendum that would then become part of the process, since most of the casino traffic would go through Sullivan Square.
There was only one way for Wynn to accomplish his mission — by buying a specific piece of MBTA-owned land. And so he did, with help from politically wired lobbyists and consultants, and without public debate.
But last week, a top regulator in the administration of Governor Charlie Baker said the MBTA sold the land before the appropriate state office conducted a review of traffic and other environmental issues — a violation of state law. As a result, the Baker administration is refusing to issue a crucial permit that Wynn Resorts needs to move forward with its casino plans.
Wynn representatives say it’s a technical matter that will delay construction, but ultimately be resolved.
Don’t be so sure. The entire MBTA land transfer is under scrutiny by assorted state agencies and other authorities. The cities of Boston, Revere, and Somerville have also filed lawsuits against the gambling commission. The Boston action specifically raises questions about the land deal.
The lack of appropriate environmental review is only one concern. A separate issue is whether the sale of the MBTA land violated the T’s own procurement requirements. Another is whether the land sale violates the state gambling law requirement that a proposed casino developer have full site control within 60 days of getting a license.
The state gambling commission in September voted 3 to 1 to back Wynn’s vision of turning a polluted piece of Everett land into a glitzy casino. In doing so, the commission rejected a counterproposal backed by Mohegan Sun to build a gambling palace at Suffolk Downs.
A few weeks after the vote to award the gaming license to Wynn, three members of the group that originally owned the Everett land were indicted for allegedly lying to state investigators about the fact that a convicted felon had a stake in the property.
The gambling commission formally awarded the casino license to Wynn anyway, on Nov. 6 — two days after voters rejected a call to ban the casino industry from Massachusetts. Wynn finalized his takeover of the Everett land on Jan. 5. He closed on the MBTA land on March 3.
The gambling commission takes great pride in touting its transparency, as measured by all those public hearings. But while some parts of the process unfolded in public, others didn’t.
The MBTA land sale is one of those that didn’t — a deal worked out behind closed doors. Unfortunately for Wynn, it was put together just as the state’s top political guard was undergoing dramatic change. Now the political wires that worked well under former Governor Deval Patrick are being tested under Baker.
Wynn is represented by ML Strategies, a subsidiary of the law firm Mintz Levin.
William “Mo” Cowan, who served as head legal counsel and chief of staff to Patrick, is a senior VP at ML Strategies. The president and CEO of ML Strategies is Stephen P. Tocco, a former secretary of economic affairs under former Governor William F. Weld — who is now listed as a “principal” at ML Strategies.
And Baker, of course, got his political start during the Weld administration.
So far, the Baker administration is putting the people’s interest ahead of Wynn’s. That’s good news for the people and bad news for Wynn.