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BGA: Video gambling interests betting on politicians’ backing

SHARE BGA: Video gambling interests betting on politicians’ backing
SHARE BGA: Video gambling interests betting on politicians’ backing

In February 2014, eight days before it applied for a liquor license, Illinois’ largest chain of gambling parlors contributed $1,000 to the political fund of Elmwood Park Mayor Angelo “Skip” Saviano.

Blackhawk Restaurant Group got the liquor license. It since has given another $2,000 to Saviano, who doubles as the suburb’s liquor commissioner.

And it has taken in $622,000 since August 2014 from its video-gambling machines in Elmwood Park.

“If people want to participate in the political process, they can, and they will,” Saviano says. “Sometimes, they give. Sometimes, they don’t.”

The video gambling industry operates more than 24,000 machines statewide — enough to stock 20 full-service casinos. To continue to grow, it has given more than $1 million in the past eight years to Illinois politicians, election records show.

Giving money to politicians “allows us to educate them to make decisions,” says Pete Pontius, director of loss prevention and compliance for video gambling machine owner B&B Amusement.

Video gambling in Illinois is big business, with more than $32 billion in bets on the machines generating $784 million in state and local taxes since the machines went live in 2012. The biggest portion of that revenue — about $1.8 billion — is split between the thousands of small establishments where people go to play the games and the 55 companies that own the machines and lease them out.

In the Chicago area, video gambling interests have given more than $83,000 since 2012 to mayors, who typically must sign off on liquor licenses because they also serve as liquor commissioner for their communities.

In Berwyn, gambling interests gave $13,600 to Mayor Robert Lovero from September 2012 through September 2016. Gold Rush Amusements, one of the largest gambling machine operators, and its top executive gave $11,600 to Lovero. Gold Rush-owned machines in 14 Berwyn locations have brought the company more than $1.4 million since it first started leasing them in October 2012.

Fair Share Gaming, among the smaller gambling companies, gave $1,500 to the campaign fund of Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas. The Tinley Park company has machines in six Blue Island locations — including five in the clubhouse of the city-owned golf course — that together have brought in $1.2 million since December 2012.

Blackhawk Restaurant Group — the biggest and most successful gambling parlor chain in the state — gave $1,000 in October 2012 to the campaign of Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci. Its contribution came one day before the Oakbrook Terrace village board awarded the company a liquor license. The Oakbrook Terrace-based gambling-parlor chain now has three locations with 15 machines in that suburb, bringing in $1.3 million since the machines there started operating in December 2013.

“Every business in my town has the option to contribute to my campaign fund,” says Ragucci, who points out he didn’t vote on the liquor license.

The city of Chicago banned video gambling long before it was legalized in Illinois, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports having a casino in the city rather than thousands of machines spread citywide.

Still, video gambling interests have contributed $78,200 to elected Chicago officials in the past two years, the biggest chunk of that coming from Gold Rush, the Glendale Heights company that’s taken in $46 million from more than 1,400 machines.

Rick Heidner, Gold Rush’s chief executive officer, is betting that the city of Chicago eventually will allow video gambling. “Maybe not when Mayor Rahm Emanuel is mayor,” Heidner says, “but maybe in the future under a different mayor.”

Last November, Gold Rush gave $1,000 to Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) 16 days before he sponsored a proposed ordinance in the Chicago City Council to allow gambling.

Twenty-four of the council’s 50 aldermen signed on as co-sponsors of the proposal, which since has been languishing in the finance committee. Lopez, who got another $2,000 from Gold Rush in April, says video gambling could bring the city millions of dollars without “tapping the same well of property taxes.”

In the months before the vote, Gold Rush gave $2,500 to the campaigns of co-sponsors Ald. Milly Santiago (31st) and $1,500 to Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), who got a second, smaller contribution from the company in March.

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st). | James Foster / Sun-Times

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st). | James Foster / Sun-Times

Days before the proposal was introduced, Gold Rush gave $1,000 to another co-sponsor, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st).

“I think the moral argument on gambling has been had, and it has been basically won by the side that says we want gambling in the cities,” Moreno says.

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