Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday forced out three members of the Illinois Racing Board for allegedly making illegal political contributions, leaving the state’s horse racing regulatory agency in flux as the struggling industry jockeys to get back on track with help from a massive gambling expansion.
The abrupt resignations of Racing Board Chairman Jeffrey Brincat and commissioners Edgar Ramirez and Gregory Sronce were the result of apparent violations of a new provision included in the gaming package signed into law by Pritzker last summer, which bars board members from giving money to politicians.
“The Illinois Horse Racing Act states that ‘[n]o member of the Board ... shall engage in any political activity,’” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in an email. “Three sitting members of the Illinois Racing Board made political contributions. As a result, they were asked to resign and each has submitted a letter of resignation.”
Brincat, who was appointed by Republican former Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2015, gave $1,000 to the campaign of state Sen. Tony Munoz, D-Chicago, on Dec. 15, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records, almost six months after Pritzker signed the gaming expansion June 28.
Brincat previously shrugged off the contributions when asked by the Chicago Sun-Times about them after a January Racing Board meeting, saying his wife had cut the checks, and they were mistakenly recorded in his name. He said then he’d reach out to the campaigns to change them to her name.
In his resignation letter, Brincat thanked Pritzker, writing “Every Captain of a ship deserves to choose his own crew” and calling his tenure “challenging, but also incredibly rewarding and exciting.”
“I leave my position as Chairman of the Illinois Racing Board with a positive look forward,” Brincat wrote. “It has been a wonderful opportunity to serve my home state under two administrations.”
Reached by phone, Brincat declined to comment on what prompted his resignation, but he said there was “nothing negative” about the departure.
”I have no intention of leaving the industry behind. I love horse racing, and I’m hoping to be talking to trainers soon and perhaps taking part in a more visceral way,” he said.
Sronce, a Springfield attorney appointed by Democratic former Gov. Pat Quinn in 2012, gave $1,000 to the Sangamon County Republican Foundation on July 23, just weeks after the ban went into effect.
Sronce previously told the Sun-Times he wasn’t aware of the new ban on political activity. He didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.
Ramirez, appointed by Rauner in 2017, gave $200 to Ald. Michael D. Rodriguez’s campaign in the 22nd Ward on Sept. 26, records show. He was absent from the January board meeting and couldn’t be reached Thursday.
Three seats were already vacant on the 11-person racing board before the abrupt resignations of Brincat, Sronce and Ramirez. That leaves just five members, which is short of the quorum required “for the transaction of any business” under state law.
That could pose problems as Illinois’ shrinking horse racing industry gets ready to implement casino gaming, a long-sought financial lifeline for those in a business that saw its overall handle drop again in 2019 to about $557 million as owners and trainers flock to other states for higher purses.
But not everyone took advantage of the new expansion. Arlington International Racecourse and its corporate owner Churchill Downs Inc. stunned Pritkzer, regulators and horse owners and trainers alike when they passed on applying for a casino license, complaining of high taxes. Critics have accused the corporation of shielding off competition to a nearby asset, Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. And now they’re at loggerheads with their horse owners and trainers over a labor deal.
And the industry’s other big win stumbled out of the starting gate. A new harness racetrack had appeared primed for approval in Tinley Park, but Pritzker’s office pulled the plug and refused to sell state-owned land for the project after developer Rick Heidner’s name surfaced in federal search warrants as part of a broad public corruption probe.
Still, the Racing Board has already finalized race dates for the 2020 season, and it’s up to Illinois Gaming Board to license the so-called racinos.
Pritzker’s office did not respond when asked about potential appointments in the pipeline. In his letter, Brincat said he was “ready to assist in every possible way going forward” for a smooth transition.
“The Illinois Racing Board should take seriously its responsibility to balance the interests of our industry’s labor community against those of track owners,” Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association president Mike Campbell said in a statement. “We respectfully encourage Gov. Pritzker to choose for the board’s future commissioners individuals who respect and appreciate the tremendous contributions of thoroughbred owners, trainers, breeders and backstretch workers.”