When Queens Lawmakers Are Also Casino Cheerleaders
Three politicians who appeared in a Resorts World promo will have input in the bidding process.
4:35 PM EDT on May 22, 2023
In the race to secure one of three downstate casino licenses, some developers have turned to ex-lawmakers to help grease the wheels—like Las Vegas Sands, which has tapped former Governor David Paterson in their quest to put a gaming facility on Long Island.
But who needs former politicians to act as your cheerleaders, when you can get lawmakers who are currently in office to do that for you?
For weeks, a non-charitable not-for-profit group called New Yorkers For Responsible Gaming Inc. has been airing this ad paid for by Resorts World New York City, in which five current City and state elected officials from Queens sing the company's praises.
"Resorts World has made such an impact," says Assemblymember Stacey Pheffer Amato. "Resorts World has been a boon to southeast Queens," State Senator Leroy Comrie chimes in. "I think about all they've invested in the education system," Borough President Donovan Richards tells the camera. "Resorts World has been such a dedicated partner in terms of jobs for the local community," City Councilmember Nantasha Williams says. "It's part of our community, it's a neighbor we can count on," adds State Senator Joseph Addabbo Jr., who is the chair of the Senate's committee on racing, gaming, and wagering.
Resorts World in Queens, which is owned by Genting, the Malaysian gaming conglomerate, is currently a "racino" attached to the Aqueduct racetrack, meaning that it's video gaming only. Genting has said they "could not be more excited" by the prospect of competing for one of the three full casino licenses, which would allow them to expand their operation into table games with real dealers. (The company did not respond to our requests for comment.)
The Queens racino is one of the highest-grossing in the country outside of Vegas, but a full license could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profit. Resorts World has spent gobs of money on state lobbyists in Albany: nearly $3 million since 2022, more than any other casino operator.
If, as they're expected to, Resorts World submits a bid for a full license, at least three of the elected officials in the ad will have direct influence on the process. Assemblymember Amato, whose district includes Resorts World, will appoint someone to sit on the six-member "community advisory committee" that will decide whether a bid survives the initial round. If Resorts World (or Steve Cohen, or any bidder in Queens) receives one of the licenses, BP Richards would play a significant role in the City's required land-use process, and if she's still in office, that land-use decision might be voted on by Councilmember Williams.
Whether Amato could appoint herself to the committee is a question that the Gaming Commission is still weighing, a spokesperson said. According to the rules of the process, casino bidders will have to disclose potential conflicts of interests themselves.
Amato, who has received $8,800 in campaign donations from Genting since 2016, did not respond to our requests for comment. A spokesperson for Richards told Hell Gate in a written statement, "As he articulated in the video, the Borough President is grateful to Resorts World for the thousands of jobs it has created here in Southeast Queens, as well as its contributions to our education system across the borough, city and state." The BP's deputy, Ebony Young, also appeared in the ad, and the BP's office said that she received approval to do so, per the City's conflict of interest rules for using City titles in promotional materials. Councilmember Williams declined our request for comment, and Senator Comrie did not return our emails.
Senator Addabbo told Hell Gate that the $39,400 in campaign contributions he's received from Genting since 2011 had nothing to do with his enthusiasm for Resorts World or his willingness to be in the ad.
"In the end, who benefits? The people of the area, so I have no problem doing it," Addabbo told Hell Gate. "And everything that I've accepted from them, always report it, it's certainly legal. Until the rules are changed, I will continue to take donations, contributions—legally—from anyone. Again, knowing that what I do here is unrelated to any of the contributions."
Addabbo, who has been an advocate for Resorts World getting a full casino license, added, "I'm very proud of the work I do here, and I sleep easy at night."
If Resorts World ever had to appear before Addabbo's gaming committee, would the senator recuse himself? Or disclose his relationships with the company?
"Again, I just know confidently, it's separate. I'm not gonna be swayed just because I've promoted the goodwill that Resorts World has done in the community," Addabbo said.
Hell Gate asked the brand-new New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government about the lawmakers' appearances in a casino ad, but they referred us to the state's Legislative Ethics Commission, who did not return our requests for comment.
Rachael Fauss, a senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany and an expert in ethics and conflicts of interest, said that since the lawmakers didn't receive direct compensation to appear in the ad, and because it was paid for by someone else—in this case, a casino company—it's perfectly legal. It's also kosher under New York's current campaign finance laws for lawmakers to receive campaign contributions from entities seeking to do business with the state, though there is a bill that would change that.
"I think that it's one of those lovely things that fits in all the loopholes," Fauss said of the ad. "Nonprofits get elected officials to support their causes all the time. The huge difference here is that the gaming industry has tons of money."
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Chris is an editor at Hell Gate. He spent nearly a decade working for Gothamist, and his work appears in New York Magazine and Streetsblog NYC.
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