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Gamblers play the slot machines lining the walls of the Grand Victoria Casino Tuesday in Elgin in 1999.
Gamblers play the slot machines lining the walls of the Grand Victoria Casino Tuesday in Elgin.
Sun-Times Media file photo

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Stack the deck against organized crime at planned Chicago casino

The Illinois Gaming Board and City Hall must build a strong firewall against criminal influence.

It’s going to be a busy summer for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the City Council if they hope to build a firewall against the influence of organized crime at the planned Chicago casino.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law last week that would give Chicago its first casino, and a massive one at that. It would feature up to 4,000 so-called gaming positions at poker and blackjack tables, slot machines and video gambling terminals. We might also see slot machines at O’Hare and Midway airports, as well as state-sanctioned sports betting.

But all of this, as also set out in the law, is to be done on an extremely tight timetable.

The Illinois Gaming Board has been given until Monday to hire a private consultant to conduct a casino feasibility study. The consultant then has just 45 days to come back with study results. Then the city has just 90 days to propose any necessary changes in the law through a “trailer” bill in Springfield.

That won’t leave much time for summertime fun, if the job is to be done right. And, most especially, both the gaming board and City Hall must make a priority of building protections to ward off the criminal element.

Historically, crime figures have sought to profit from casinos in such ways as hidden ownership, money laundering and running companies that do such things as supply tablecloths, manage restaurants or operate concessions for casinos. Just last year, Pennsylvania gaming regulators revoked permission for a pizzeria to do business with a casino after investigators found the pizzeria owner had alleged organized crime ties.

Former Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe says it can be difficult to determine if a company looking to do business with a casino has ties to organized crime — and so the process takes time. A company can be owned by several other companies, which in turn are owned by additional companies.

“You have got to check out all those people,” Jaffe told us. “It is very difficult.”

The gaming board has a good record of distancing Illinois casinos from criminal elements. But at a time when the board does not even have a chairman, the staff will have its hands full with the new law. It must work out regulatory and oversight issues for not only a Chicago casino, but for new casinos in Waukegan, Rockford, the south suburbs, Williamson County and Danville.

That means four things:

  • The gaming board staff will have to be expanded so it can do its job properly, and any new staff members must be knowledgeable, independent from the gambling industry and above reproach. We’re leery of an assurance by state Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, that a revamped “pro-gaming” gaming board will be friendlier to the industry. What’s so great about being “friendlier” when it comes to regulating an industry that’s had issues in the past?
  • Chicago authorities also will have to be vigilant. As Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) says, “We will have to work closely with law enforcement.” If anything is found not to be on the up-and-up, it is the city that will suffer.
  • Every decision at both the city and state levels should be fully transparent and publicly vetted.
  • Mayor Lightfoot and aldermen should accept no campaign cash from the casino industry, or from related businesses.

When we asked the governor’s office on Tuesday what measures are being taken to create that firewall for the new casinos, staffers offered this reply in an email:

“The Illinois Gaming Board currently has a detailed and thorough process for vetting new applicants as well as stringent monitoring of existing licensees, their gaming premises, and financial activities. IGB also maintains a physical presence at every casino with sworn officers on site 24 hours a day. As part of the expansion process, the IGB is reviewing its internal operations to ensure it is operating using best practices to ensure the most robust and up-to-date protections are in place.”

And last month, in a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, Pritzker pointed out that the new law empowers the city to play a strong and forceful role in policing its casino.

“Not only was [it] read into the record as legislative intent,” the governor said, “but there was actually a change made in the bill that explicitly says that the city of Chicago and its home rule have all the right to regulate these locations — not the betting itself, but the locations, just as [it] would a restaurant or any other public facility.”

A Chicago casino could go a long way toward helping the city get its finances in order. But a city with a long and ugly history of organized crime can’t let down its guard.

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