Editorial: Gambling regulators must be thorough in campaign finance investigation

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

The Indiana Gaming Commission has delayed plans to award a license to Spectacle Entertainment to open a casino in Vigo County following news that federal authorities are investigating possible campaign violations by at least one of its principals.

In a statement, the commission’s deputy director, Jenny Reske, called the situation “concerning” and said the agency is reviewing the matter.

We commend the commission for delaying its decision and urge it to conduct a thorough investigation before moving forward. That could take a while—and we acknowledge that is potentially inconvenient and costly for the company, the community and the state.

But the allegations in question—which involve a scheme to illegally funnel campaign contributions to an Indiana congressional campaign—are the type that should be especially concerning to a regulatory agency. If true, they demonstrate no respect for the law, government structure and regulation.

We want to be clear: No one at Spectacle has been charged with a crime. In fact, neither Spectacle nor any of its principals or employees are even mentioned in court records filed so far.

But Gaming Commission officials have said the investigation involves the firm Centaur Gaming LLC, an Indianapolis-based company that owned Hoosier Park Racing & Casino and Indiana Grand Racing & Casino until they were acquired in 2018 by Caesars.

Rod Ratcliff, who was Centaur’s chairman and CEO, and John Keeler, Centaur’s general counsel, are now serving in the same roles for Spectacle. Ratcliff and a Terre Haute entrepreneur are the principal investors in Spectacle, which was formed to purchase two Gary casinos on Lake Michigan in Gary.

Last year, the Gaming Commission approved the ownership changes, and Spectacle persuaded lawmakers to let it merge those casinos into one and move off the water to a location now under construction. Spectacle was the only applicant for a new casino license in Vigo County, which is what’s under consideration now by the commission.

The connections are such that further investigation is necessary, something Gov. Eric Holcomb acknowledged when he told reporters this week, “We need clarity, and we’ll get it.”

Here’s what we know so far: Republican strategist Chip O’Neil, who worked as vice president for Maryland-based Strategic Campaign Group, pleaded guilty Jan. 23 to conspiracy and admitted to funneling money from an Indianapolis gambling company to an Indiana congressional candidate.

Court filings do not name the company, but regulators say the case involves Centaur. The filings also say the scheme was directed by the company’s chief counsel and done to avoid campaign contribution limits and hide the fact that the money was coming from the gambling company.

O’Neil’s guilty plea requires him to cooperate with further investigations. But that could take time to play out—or it might not happen at all, which creates a difficult situation for state regulators. We urge the Gaming Commission to resist rushing ahead without answers. What’s at stake is too important.•

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