Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby’s decision to recuse himself from a key meeting involving an old business associate reflects an excess of caution, but is an appropriate move considering the stakes. Crosby had a long-ago partnership with one of the owners of a possible casino site in Everett, Paul Lohnes, who now stands to reap a windfall if that plan wins the Greater Boston region’s sole casino license. Although the State Ethics Commission cleared Crosby to participate, he will skip Friday’s meeting anyway.
Crosby's recusal has led some critics to call for him to remove himself from all remaining deliberations regarding the eastern Massachusetts license, on the reasoning that his ties with Lohnes make it impossible for him to judge fairly either the Everett plan or its rival at Suffolk Downs. Although that is premature, Crosby's personal ties are a factor worth monitoring, and he may want to reconsider depending on what happens in the Everett meeting on Friday. That's when the other four gaming commissioners will decide whether to give their blessing to the land transaction between Lohnes and his partners and casino developer Steve Wynn, who will purchase the site if he's awarded a casino license.
The relationship between Lohnes and Crosby complicates the commission's task, but it's hardly a surprise. Indeed, it reflects an almost unavoidable tension in Crosby's job description. A former official for both Republican and Democratic governors, Crosby was picked job because of his long experience in state politics and reputation for fair-mindedness. But that insider experience also means he knows countless people in the state, including individuals with connections to several of the casino applicants.
Personal relationships, by themselves, are not disqualifying. Only if Crosby has current financial links, or extremely close family or social ties, should he step aside from judging any of the casino applicants.
Crosby's partnership with Lohnes, which ended 23 years ago, does not appear to meet that standard. Crosby says he is recusing himself from Friday's vote because the specific decision of whether to accept the deal will have a financial impact on Lohnes, and because of questions that have been raised about possible hidden partners in the ownership group. If, as expected, the commissioners accept a transaction that prices the Everett land at fair-market value, instead of the higher price originally proposed, then Lohnes will no longer have a stake in the ultimate outcome of the casino process, since by definition he could get the fair-market price from a non-casino buyer, too.
It's a fine-grained distinction — one that reflects the seriousness with which Crosby is taking his job. The chairman should remain transparent, and stay away from any vote that violates either the legal or common-sense meanings of conflict of interest.