‘Rockford is key’ in possible casino sites

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Alleged organized crime ties could block efforts in Rosemont

State Sen. Denny Jacobs (D-36, Moline), chairman of the Gaming Revenue Committee, said he would sponsor legislation that included Rockford as one of three sites for additional casino licenses.

Based on Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) policy and the spirit of state law, Jacobs said, “Rockford is key in this scenario of possible sites” for a new casino, which includes Country Club Hills and Waukegan and possibly Chicago. State law suggests casino licenses should be awarded only to economically depressed communities, such as Rockford.

Ten members of the Rockford City Council signed a resolution May 17 that supports efforts to bring a riverboat casino to Rockford. The resolution was presented by Alderman Dan Conness (R-4) who, along with Rockford Mayor Doug Scott (D), State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34) and State Rep. Chuck Jefferson (D-67), lobbied for a local casino the past few weeks.

Conness is executive director of Rockford’s Northwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. The council is a large money contributor to the campaigns of Syverson, Scott, Jefferson, Blagojevich, Jacobs and key members of the gaming committee, such as Moline State Rep. Mike Boland (D-71) and Chairman Louis Lang (D-16) of Skokie.

Scott, whose close ties to Blagojevich likely enhance Rockford’s chances of being awarded a casino, encouraged state legislators to pass a proposed bill that would allow Rockford and other communities a casino during testimony May 12 in Springfield. Jacobs co-chaired the special Senate committee that will likely urge three additional casino licenses.

An Emerald Casino license that Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan may revoke is not one of the three licenses under consideration.

Rosemont casino license

Madigan wrote a March 25 letter to the Illinois Gaming Board linking Rosemont Mayor Donald E. Stephens to alleged organized crime associates. Madigan’s letter was a response to the Illinois Gaming Board’s 4-1 vote on March 15 that awarded Illinois’ 10th and last casino license to operator Isle of Capri, and Rosemont, the site for the casino. Stephens denied having ties to organized crime.

Madigan wrote in the letter that Stephens had “two friends…affiliated with organized crime…Nick Boscarino and Joseph Salamone.” She also described associates of Boscarino and Salamone, which included “William Daddano Jr., William Daddano III, Lou Daddano and John Daddano” that Madigan alleged “have been involved in organized crime for multiple generations.”

Melissa Merz, spokesman for the attorney general, said as a result of Stephens’ alleged ties to organized crime and the gaming board’s rejection of its own staff’s advice to not award the site to Rosemont and Capri as the operator, Madigan is pursuing options to revoke the license. The license is technically still owned by the bankrupt Emerald Casino.

According to Madigan, Boscarino, Salamone and Stephens all owned stock in Emerald. Madigan said she opposed a previous bankruptcy plan that would have given Emerald stockholders the decision-making power to award the license, rather than the gaming board.

Madigan also alleged in her letter: “Joseph Salamone was involved in a secret deal to share his investment with others, including Rocco Suspenzi, the vice chairman of Parkway Bank and Trust Co. Rosemont funds are deposited in Parkway Bank, and the bank loaned Rosemont $15 million to finance the construction of Emerald’s garage.”

In response to whether he was concerned about organized crime influencing Illinois casinos, Jacobs said: “Oh, hell no. That issue was looked at years ago. The system has worked very well in Illinois. It’s clean, and we want to keep it that way.”

During the past 10 years, Jacobs has received 1,774 campaign contributions that total $904,266. A large portion of those contributions was derived from unions and gambling interests. However, Jacobs steadfastly maintains that contributions do not influence his politics or votes.

Wisconsin and court ruling

Rockford appears to be on the fast track for a new casino because legislators, including Scott, Jefferson, Conness, Jacobs and Syverson, are concerned that a new casino will be built soon in Beloit, Wis. Rockford developer Kurt Carlson told the Beloit Daily News last November: “I’m 99 percent sure it’s going to happen [construction of a Beloit casino]. It’s just a matter of when.”

The Beloit City Council extended an offer last December to purchase 139 acres in Beloit’s industrial park near the intersections of interstates 43 and 90. The property would be purchased for a land-based casino that would be built by the Bad River and St. Croix Chippewa Indian tribes.

The offer originally expired at the end of 2002, but was extended the first time in December of that year, with a new expiration date of Dec. 31, 2003. The offer was extended again last year, with another expiration date set for the end of this year.

Carlson, the tribes, and Beloit residents and politicians want to construct a 500-room hotel, 68,000-square-foot water park, 35,000-square-foot convention center, shopping mall, and several large restaurants on the property. Beloit residents approved of the gambling proposal in 1999 after 61 percent voted for the plan.

However, on May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted 4-3 to curb the Wisconsin governor’s broad authority to negotiate gambling pacts with tribes, which leaves the state facing a possible $200 million shortfall in expected revenues. The Wisconsin State Journal reported May 14 the ruling may be headed to federal court.

The dissenting justices wrote: “In light of the majority opinion, if any Indian gaming whatsoever is to be permitted in Wisconsin in the future, it may be only because of the intervention of the federal courts.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling appears to at least temporarily undermine Illinois lawmakers’ arguments about the urgency of approving a bill for more casino licenses. The lawmakers’ argument is based on the threat of Illinois money flowing to Beloit.

Economics, voting, polls

Jacobs said his argument that a new license could boost economic development in Rockford is still valid. Opponents of gambling, such as Rockford resident Lee Schreiner, chairman of Enough is Enough, argue casinos make money for the owners and are a drain on a local economy.

Schreiner said about casinos: “It’s like a cancer. It preys on the economics of the town …Essentially it’s a regressive tax on the poor. It won’t attract good business and make families want to move here.”

Schreiner added that he may have concerns about organized crime infiltrating Rockford’s proposed casino, depending on the investors and operators.

Schreiner said approximately 10 years ago, 76 percent of Winnebago County voters said they wanted the opportunity to put the issue of gambling on an advisory referendum, before a license was awarded to the area. Scott has been resistant to the proposition of an advisory referendum in Rockford.

The Daily Southtown reported May 16 that only 23 percent of likely Illinois voters support gambling expansion to address the state’s budget problems. The poll, which was conducted May 12, also suggests 48 percent oppose creating three new casino licenses, while 38 percent support the idea.

Other scenarios of possible land-based, Indian tribal casinos in Illinois involve the Potawatomi Nation, which has laid claim to 1,280 acres near Shabbona in DeKalb County. The Senate and House of Representatives passed State Sen. Brad Burzynski’s (R-35, Sycamore) bill (SB 2460) May 4 that would allow locals the opportunity to voice their concerns before a casino deal is complete.

Previous casino efforts

During the 1990s, Palace Development Co. sought to locate a casino at 4002 S. Main St., Rockford. The property is owned by Rock River Disposal Services, Inc.—a subsidiary of the William Charles Group.

Palace’s past members included Chuck Howard, head of the William Charles Group, local developer Sunil Puri, Rockford lawy

er Frank Vella, and lobbyist Lawrence Suffredin Jr.

Vella’s wife, Barbara, is the daughter of the late E.J. “Zeke” Giorgi. He was the Rockford-area state representative who sponsored the 1990 legislation that established Illinois’ current casino licenses. Mayor Scott replaced Giorgi as state representative after Giorgi died in 1993. Scott remained state representative until 2001.

Palace contributed twice to political campaigns since 1994—$2,500 to former Governor George Ryan’s campaign in 1996, and another $5,000 in 1998.

Palace’s current agent, James Patch, did not return a message for comment.

To view Illinois campaign contributions and expenditures, visit www.elections.state.il.us.

To view the attorney general’s March 25 letter to the Illinois Gaming Board, visit www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom.

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