An Indiana casino magnate treated Gov. Eric Holcomb to two private jet flights last year and made big contributions to Holcomb's largest 2016 campaign donor, all while he was pushing for changes to state law that would benefit his business, according to a newspaper report.
Spectacle Entertainment CEO and Chairman Rod Ratcliff flew Holcomb to meetings in Aspen, Colorado, and Scottsdale, Arizona, in July and November, respectively. Both events were hosted by the Republican Governors Association, which funded the vast majority of Holcomb's 2016 gubernatorial campaign, contributing $7.6 million, The Indianapolis Star reported.
The chartered flights, one of which tax records show cost about $20,000, gave Ratcliff and his business partners hours of exclusive access to the governor, who will have final say over pending legislation that includes their plans to move two Gary casinos to more lucrative locations.
One of those flights happened only one day before Ratcliff announced his plans to acquire those two casinos.
The flights were among $500,000 Ratcliff and his companies contributed last year to the Republican Governors Association. That sum was more than any other casino operator or Indiana company contributed to the RGA, which supports the election of GOP governors across the U.S.
Contributions from casino interests to organizations like the RGA have long drawn fire from government accountability groups, which see them as a way to skirt Indiana's prohibition on campaign donations from casino interests. Indiana law bans casino license holders from donating directly to Indiana candidates, but does not forbid contributions to national organizations.
Experts, however, told the newspaper that the flights were particularly concerning because one was never disclosed to the Internal Revenue Service, as required by law, and both appear to be earmarked for Holcomb.
"What they're doing is basically hiding the real purpose of the expenditure, which is to fly Holcomb out there on a corporate jet," said Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission attorney. "And so the public really has no way of knowing … that he is receiving free air travel from somebody."
The governor's office referred questions about the flights to Holcomb's campaign. His campaign treasurer and Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer defended the flights as "perfectly legal and customary" in a two-page written response to The Star.
Hupfer said the flights were arranged by the RGA, which often flies governors to its conferences, and should have been reported by that organization.
The RGA did report the July flight to Aspen to the IRS, listing a $21,486 in-kind travel contribution from one of Ratcliff's companies, but it did not report the November flight to Scottsdale.
RGA spokesman John Burke told the Star that the organization did not receive notice of the flight until after the filing deadline at the end of January. He said it plans to file an amended report with the IRS.
Ratcliff declined the Star's request for an interview through Spectacle's attorney, John Keeler, who said the company had violated no rules.
"It is what it is," Keeler said. "We belong to the RGA. We had an extra seat or two on the plane, the governor flew along with us. Not a big deal."
The undisclosed November flight to Scottsdale came one day before Ratcliff and his business partner, Greg Gibson of Terre Haute, announced plans to acquire the two lakefront Majestic Star casinos in Gary.
In addition to Holcomb and Ratcliff, that flight included Spectacle's lobbyist, Brian Burdick, and Keeler. The only other passengers were Hupfer, Holcomb's wife, Janet, and an Indiana State Police officer assigned to the governor, according to Holcomb's campaign.
At the time, Ratcliff's plans still needed regulatory approval from the Indiana Gaming Commission, whose members are appointed by Holcomb, and legislative changes to Indiana's gambling laws that Holcomb could approve or veto.
The commission signed off in March, but lawmakers are still considering whether to allow the Gary licenses to be moved in pending legislation.
Holcomb said at a February news conference that he hadn't decided whether he would sign a bill allowing Spectacle to move the licenses, but that he was "not opposed to looking at new ways" to use existing licenses.