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State regulators out to revoke video gambling kingpin Rick Heidner’s license

The Illinois Gaming Board claims Heidner made an “illegal inducement” to keep his slot machines in a chain of gambling parlors.

Rick Heidner, pictured at a 2019 Illinois Racing Board meeting. State regulators have settled a disciplinary complaint against Heidner’s video gambling company.
Rick Heidner at an Illinois Racing Board meeting Sept. 17.
Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Barely two months ago, video gambling magnate Rick Heidner was being hailed as a potential savior of the Illinois horse racing industry, poised to expand his gaming empire with an ambitious racetrack and casino project on the fast track to state approval.

Now, Heidner is fighting just to keep state gambling regulators from dismantling his business amid a flurry of accusations of unsavory dealings.

The Illinois Gaming Board moved last week to revoke his video gambling operator license for allegedly offering up a $5 million “illegal inducement” to the owner of a gambling parlor chain that planned to remove Heidner’s machines — a claim Heidner’s spokesman says is just part of a competitor’s “orchestrated smear campaign.”

The disciplinary complaint against Heidner’s Gold Rush Gaming company comes after his name surfaced in October in a federal search warrant for state Sen. Martin Sandoval’s offices as part of a broadening public corruption investigation. Gov. J.B. Pritzker subsequently pulled the plug on Heidner’s plan for a sprawling “racino” complex in Tinley Park.

But the alleged misdeed that prompted the Gaming Board to try to strip Heidner’s license happened more than a year ago.

Heidner went to Gibsons Steakhouse in Rosemont on Nov. 16, 2018, to meet with the CEO of Laredo Hospitality Ventures, which owned 44 video gaming establishments carrying Heidner’s slot machines, according to the complaint filed Dec. 17 by Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter.

Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter speaks at an Aug. 8 meeting.
Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter speaks at an Aug. 8 meeting.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The CEO told Heidner that Laredo was being bought by a new company owned by Daniel Fischer that planned to get rid of Heidner’s slots, which “would result in a significant loss of revenue” for Heidner’s company, the complaint says. Heidner is the third-largest video gambling operator in Illinois, providing thousands of machines to more than 500 bars, restaurants and other establishments.

Ten days later, Heidner met Fischer at a Norridge cafe and offered to “arrange a purchase” of Laredo for $5 million more than Fischer’s company had paid for it, the complaint says.

Fischer, who is the lead investor in the group seeking Gaming Board approval to open a new casino in Rockford, declined the offer.

Days later, Heidner allegedly described his bid in a text message to Laredo’s previous owner:

“First thing I asked was if he would sell and I could get a group together quickly and would get him $5,000,000.00 more than he paid please make $5, in a week. I told him none of my friends wanted to see this happen to me. He obviously said no….. I told him I would help him so much I would help him expand so much,” Heidner’s text message allegedly read.

Under state gambling law, “giving anything of value to an establishment as an incentive or inducement to locate [video gambling terminals] in that establishment” is a felony.

Heidner’s proposed “windfall payment” was intended to keep his slots in Laredo establishments, making it an “illegal inducement,” the complaint says.

Heidner spokesman Randall Samborn says while Heidner had “discussed assembling a group to make a legitimate purchase offer,” it was actually Gold Rush that ended up being the victim of an illegal inducement from a competitor that “engaged in a sham transaction” to replace Heidner’s machines at Laredo locations.

Gold Rush filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Fischer, who could not be reached for comment.

“The allegations are absolutely false, and Gold Rush and Rick Heidner will vigorously oppose the orchestrated smear campaign against them before the Gaming Board and in court,” Samborn said in a statement. The Gaming Board “has chosen to do the bidding of a competing terminal operator in their complicit effort to destroy Gold Rush, despite its record of transparency and compliance,” he said.

Fruchter declined to comment on the case after a Gaming Board meeting Dec. 19, when members voted to order Gold Rush to fire Ronald Bolger, the company’s director of operations, and sales agent Daniel Gerardi.

Gaming Board agents determined the men have “social and business associations that pose a threat to the integrity of video gaming,” Fruchter said during the meeting.

Heidner and his employees have until early January to respond to the Gaming Board’s complaints, which Samborn said they’ll do.

In September, Heidner received Illinois Racing Board approval for the proposed Tinley Park racino he had mapped out with Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey.

But by mid-October, unredacted search warrants showed federal agents went looking for items related to Heidner and Gold Rush, among other entities, when they raided the offices of Sandoval and McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski. Soon after, a damning Chicago Tribune report detailed Heidner’s business ties to a banking family with mob connections. Pritzker’s office then torpedoed his racino bid by refusing to sell state-owned land for the project.

Heidner has not been accused of wrongdoing on either of those fronts.