Legislation regarding the legalization or expansion of gaming is being drafted, amended, voted on and signed into law across the United States. From Massachusetts to Florida, and from Georgia (yes, Georgia) to Texas, and on and on, lawmakers are looking to gaming as an economic boost.
That should surprise no one, and gaming’s expansion-starting with Nevada’s pioneering efforts in 1931-has long been linked to economic hard times. It is also not surprising, but arguably gratifying, that many state legislators are working hard to ensure that their efforts to expand gaming are developed in a forthright, fair manner that is built on a foundation of integrity.
That foundation is proving to be one of the keys toward gaining passage of legislation, and those of us who come from a background in law could not be more pleased.
Consider what the Boston Globe, one of the most respected newspapers in the world and a leading voice in New England, wrote recently: “State officials took the first steps yesterday toward creating an independent board with vast regulatory power over casino gambling, pledging that the selection process would be open and rigorous. The stakes are high. The five-member gambling commission, established under the new law legalizing casinos in Massachusetts, will have broad authority over the industry, from awarding licenses to determining the payouts of slot machines.”
“We have only one chance to get this right,” said Steven Grossman, the state’s treasurer, who is responsible for choosing one of the commission members, told the Globe.
Grossman is absolutely correct. Getting it “right” means making decisions that are in the long-term interests of the state and its residents, and it means writing regulations that meet that goal, and attracting developers who are all in alignment on that point.
But the best-written statute in the nation (Massachusetts may arguably be a candidate for that title) is meaningless, and can be effectively reduced to mere words on paper in the absence of putting the right people in position.
Another respected Massachusetts newspaper, the Boston Herald, got it right in an editorial, when it noted: “Ultimately the casino industry in Massachusetts will only be as ethical as the people in charge of regulating it. Gov. Patrick & Co. have to get this right.”
My state, New Jersey, learned this lesson well, back in the 1970s. New Jersey was the first state outside Nevada to legalize casinos, and it recognized that the people assigned to carrying out the words of that pioneering statute would be the face, the voice and the symbols of gaming regulation. If they focused on integrity, then the state’s grand experiment would succeed.
The first chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission was Joseph P. Lordi, a former prosecutor in Essex County with a no-nonsense reputation. I worked for him in Essex County, before he and I both made the journey south to Atlantic City. Lordi’s reputation for independence and integrity was so stellar and beyond reproach that then Gov. Brendan Byrne (another former Essex County prosecutor) knew immediately he was the right person for that post.
Indeed, when the national Abscam scandal erupted, threatening to bring down the entire Casino Control Commission in its wake of various allegations, including one that casino licenses in Atlantic City were for sale, Byrne took the unprecedented step of firing the entire commission, save one: Lordi.
The chairman stayed. His reputation was that strong, and the tough decisions he made have demonstrated that gaming could be regulated effectively and operated under the highest degree of integrity. To be sure, every state has one or more individuals in its midst who rise to the level of a Joe Lordi. Such individuals must have the backbone to withstand political pressure, and the wisdom to know right from wrong.
To most people, the 1970s are ancient history, but there are lessons to be learned from that history: One is to get the right people in the right position. As Steven Grossman said, you get one chance to do it right. Find the next Joe Lordi. He or she is out there.