Monday, June 24, 2002

Gaming records under wraps

By Robert Anglen,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The public agency in charge of overseeing Indiana's $1.8 billion casino industry wants to keep its records private and won't reveal what its agents are saying about state gambling boats.

        That includes records on licenses, new casino applications, finance issues and discipline matters such as the one Belterra Casino in Florence, Ind., faces for allegedly flying in prostitutes to entertain high rollers.

   Ohio River
   • Argosy Casino, Lawrenceburg
   • Grand Victoria, Rising Sun
   • Belterra, Florence
   • Caesars Indiana, Harrison County
   • Casino Aztar, Evansville
   • Blue Chip Casino, Michigan City
   • Harrah's E. Chicago, East Chicago
   • Horseshoe Hammond, Hammond
   • Majestic Star, Gary
   • Trump Casino, Gary
   Source: American Gaming Association and Indiana Gaming Commission
        The Indiana Gaming Commission — which monitors 10 riverboats, including five on the Ohio River — is refusing to release reports or memos used in making public decisions about casinos and $493 million in tax revenue they generate for the state.

        None of the seven commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, nor the agency's paid executive director will explain why the information should be kept secret.

        State officials hired to interpret public records law and to train other state employees on access to documents say the commission is making a mistake.

        “We say factual information is disclosable,” says Sandy Barger, staff attorney for Indiana's Open Access Counselor. “It probably should be (open).”

        She says it appears as if the commission is basing sweeping denials of documents on a limited state law.

        The casino industry is big business for Indiana, with 10 gambling boats employing about 16,000 people and pulling in about $493 million in gaming tax revenue last year. The money is supposed to be used for economic development in the counties where the casinos are located.

        For months, The Cincinnati Enquirer has requested copies of agenda packets used by commissioners to prepare for public meetings and copies of reports from state-paid employees.

        But commission officials have refused, citing a state law that they say “exempts from public disclosure deliberative material communicated for the purpose of decision making.”

        Staff reports and other records sought by the newspaper are typically made available to the public. They are integral to meetings of city councils, school boards, county commissioners and other local, county and state agencies.

        The reports, prepared by paid staff, usually give elected and appointed officials facts and analyses of issues that they will later vote on.

        “I think to throw a blanket over everything is too broad,” says Enquirer lawyer Jack Greiner. “I don't know if it is a sinister motive or just a defensive reaction that some agencies have.”

        Mr. Greiner says the state exemption is much more limited in scope and applies only to expressions of opinion or speculation. The commission might be able to withhold, or redact, some documents, but not all of them.

        Furthermore, legislation that created the Gaming Commission says the “commission's records shall be available for public inspection and must accurately reflect all commission proceedings.”

        Commission Executive Director Jack Thar and Commission Chair Donald Vowles did not return calls.

“A brick wall”

        Cincinnati lawyer Ned Dorsey says he is not surprised by the commission's secrecy.

        Mr. Dorsey is suing Belterra Casino on behalf of two female employees who say they were harassed after objecting to prostitutes being flown in to entertain wealthy guests on a golf outing. The women also claim they were told to entice wealthy customers into playing in the casino, located on the Ohio River 40 miles southwest of Cincinnati.

        Mr. Dorsey says his clients helped commission investigators build a case against Belterra. But since then, he said commission staff have become secretive, won't return phone calls or respond to letters, and refuse any information.

        “But for my clients, none of this would have happened,” he says. “Now it's like talking to a brick wall. You would think what would've happened is that we would be involved in (settlement and penalty) talks with Belterra.”

        Mr. Dorsey says it is “appalling” that commission staff would use his clients and then cut them out of any resolution.

        On May 13, commissioners discussed possible penalties for Belterra, but they delayed taking official action. While board members said they preferred not to shut the casino down or suspend its license, they discussed penalties of more than $1 million and possible probation.

        The May 13 meeting, which was open to the public, took place at Harrah's Casino in East Chicago. The agenda item simply said, “Disciplinary actions — Belterra.” The commission refused to release any related documents, including the staff report and any findings.

        Ms. Barger says those investigative documents would likely be open to the public.

        Hoosier State Press Association lawyer Stephen Key says packets board members use during public meetings should be open.

        He says the Public Access Counselor is able to resolve about 95 percent of open records disputes. But he says if the agency continues to withhold documents, a lawsuit could be the only option to get them.

        “I think you will find it is a small percent where there is a deliberate attempt to circumvent the law,” Mr. Key says, adding that this is more likely “a situation where they've taken an interpretation of the law that I think is incorrect.”


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