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Waukegan casino license delayed as spurned tribe complains of ‘rigged process’

A Wisconsin tribe claims Waukegan’s casino developer selection process was “rigged,” but the north suburb counters that the “scorched earth lawsuit” is designed to protect the tribe’s Milwaukee casino from competition. 

A dealer resets a deck of cards during a break in poker play at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 2013.
A dealer resets a deck of cards during a break in poker play at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 2013.
Julie Jacobson/AP file

The lengthy process to select the developer of a new casino in Waukegan just got longer.

State regulators were expected to name a winner in the two-years-and-counting race for the coveted north suburban gambling license Thursday, but the Illinois Gaming Board deferred action due to an ongoing legal battle waged by a spurned operator that claims Waukegan officials “rigged” their selection process to favor a bid backed by a former state senator.

The Forest County Potawatomi Community sued the city in 2019, shortly after the Wisconsin tribe was eliminated from consideration among four bidders to break ground on the new casino. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a massive gambling expansion into law that year, which requires host communities to sign off on bids before they’re vetted by the state.

Waukegan advanced three proposals, including the two remaining finalists being weighed by the Gaming Board: Las Vegas-based Full House Resorts, and North Point Casino, which is led by former Grayslake state Sen. Michael Bond, who also runs a slot machine business.

The third group, a joint venture between billionaire casino mogul Neil Bluhm and Churchill Downs Inc., withdrew from consideration earlier this fall.

Potawatomi lawyers have questioned why they were eliminated despite scoring well on a city-contracted consultant’s scoring system for the bids.

Rendering of the first phase of development for the proposed North Point Casino.
Rendering of the first phase of development for the proposed North Point Casino.
Provided

And in a lawsuit court filing unsealed last week, Potawatomi lawyers alleged former Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham told aldermen which bids to approve, “the culmination of a rigged process.” Bond poured thousands of dollars into local elections through his video gambling machine company Tap Room Gaming ahead of the state gambling expansion.

Attorneys for Waukegan have dismissed Potawatomi’s claims, writing in court filings that “this scorched earth lawsuit is factually suspect,” intended to stifle development and protect the tribe’s Milwaukee casino from potential competition. They accuse the tribe of using “the federal court’s jurisdiction as a means of appealing the city of Waukegan’s licensing decisions.”

Artist’s rendering of the proposed “American Place” casino in Waukegan.
Artist’s rendering of the proposed “American Place” casino in Waukegan.
Provided by Full House Resorts

The Gaming Board was scheduled to issue preliminary approval to one of the remaining casino hopefuls at a meeting Thursday, but administrator Marcus Fruchter said the agency would delay its vote indefinitely “out of respect for the judicial process.”

“This decision is in no way a comment about or reflection of the IGB’s views of the respective merits of the pending lawsuits or of any claims in those lawsuits,” Fruchter said.

A North Point spokesperson declined to comment on the suit but said in an email “we respect the Illinois Gaming Board’s decision today and remain committed to building a world-class entertainment destination in Waukegan.”

A federal mediation on the Potawatomi lawsuit is scheduled for Nov. 30. The Gaming Board next meets Dec. 8.

Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter speaks at an August 2019 meeting.
Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter speaks at an August 2019 meeting.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Pritzker’s gambling expansion authorized six new casinos, but only one has opened since he signed the law in June of 2019. The Hard Rock Casino Rockford took its first bets at a temporary site last week.

Tax revenue from the expansion is earmarked for the governor’s $45 billion capital infrastructure improvement plan.