The Indiana Gaming Commission has acknowledged that its investigation into alleged campaign finance violations by a casino executive has expanded to more than 10 people and could impact the future of multimillion-dollar projects for new casinos in Gary and Terre Haute.
The commission’s executive director, Sara Gonso Tait, said the agency is working to finish its look into possible financial misconduct that would violate state casino laws or regulations.
The investigation started early this year, after federal prosecutors said they were investigating campaign finance violations that involved Indiana casino executives from Centaur Gaming. Centaur had owned the state’s racetrack casinos before selling them to Caesars, and its owners then launched Spectacle Entertainment, which purchased two riverboat casinos in Gary.
Spectacle and its subsidiaries and related companies are working on a replacement $300 million inland casino in Gary and a $125 million casino in Terre Haute.
In September, prosecutors indicted former state Sen. Brent Waltz and casino executive and former state lawmaker John Keeler on federal charges related to violating federal campaign finance laws.
Waltz, 47, a former state senator who ran unsuccessfully for a Congressional seat, was charged with one count of conspiracy to make conduit contributions, false statements and to obstruct justice; one count of making and receiving conduit contributions; one count of obstruction of justice; and two counts of making false statements.
Keeler, 71, was an executive with Centaur Gaming at the time. He has been charged with one count of conspiracy to make illegal corporate contributions, false statements and to obstruct justice; one count of making illegal corporate contributions; one count of obstruction of justice; and one count of making false statements.
Tait said during a gaming commission meeting this week that the agency’s investigation has gone beyond just looking at Keeler’s actions.
She told commissioners, according to a story in The Indianapolis Star, that the agency had conducted 29 separate interviews of people who hold gaming commission licenses and some who previously did. She said three individuals declined to be interviewed. The Star reported those individuals are Rod Ratcliff, the former Centaur CEO and a Spectacle owner, and former Centaur executives Kyle Waggoner and Adam Kallick.
Gaming Commission board member Susan Williams said during a Monday meeting that regulators needed to be decisive about a situation she called “unprecedented for this commission.”
“We’ve got one project marching along up in Gary and one to be started in Terre Haute,” Williams said, adding that a deadline was needed for “a plan in order to convince us that we don’t need to suspend this license.”
Commission members said they wanted a report within the next month for them to decide what action to take, with Chairman Michael McMains saying they needed to have a “zero tolerance policy of illegal gaming activities.”
Tait did not identify those under investigation but said “their suitability and ability to continue to hold gaming licenses is in serious doubt.”
State officials suspended the casino license of former Spectacle Entertainment vice president John Keeler in September after his indictment.
Ratcliff and Keeler, a lawyer who was a Republican legislator for 16 years during the 1980s and 90s, have been active lobbyists in the Indiana Legislature for many years on casino matters and were among the owners of the two central Indiana horse track casinos until they were sold to Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment Corp. in 2018 for $1.7 billion.
They pushed lawmakers last year to allow the Gary casino’s move from along Lake Michigan to a more lucrative location along Interstate 80/94 in Gary and permit Terre Haute to become Indiana’s first new casino city since 2008. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb faced a state ethics review last year of his dealings with Ratcliff.
Ratcliff, who is not named in the federal indictment and does not face any criminal charges, resigned in June as Spectacle’s chairman and CEO but has been allowed to keep his ownership stake.
Indianapolis-based Spectacle, which owns the Gary casino, said in a statement that it has been fully cooperating with the Gaming Commission and restricting its organization.
“From the beginning, we have taken this matter very seriously, as we share the Commission’s objective of protecting the integrity of gaming in the state,” said Jahnae Erpenbach, Spectacle’s CEO and board chairwoman.
The Terre Haute casino is being planned by a company called Spectacle Jack led by Greg Gibson, a Terre Haute businessman who is also vice chairman of Spectacle Entertainment.
Spectacle Jack said in a statement Tuesday that Gibson was cooperating with the gaming commission and wasn’t a subject of its investigation
“Gibson is committed to ensuring the integrity of the Indiana gaming industry and will continue to work ensure both projects move forward,” the statement said.
Jennifer Reske, the gaming commission’s deputy director, said the agency did not want to derail casino projects that are important to the state and those cities.
“Ensuring these projects are successful is a top priority,” Reske said. “It’s a goal to make sure that they continue and there are no delays, but at the same time we have to ensure that these facilities are conducted in compliance with statute.”