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As Illinois gambling expands: Don't meddle with the Gaming Board, Gov. Pritzker

Video gambling machines at RJ's Place in Rockdale on in 2014.

If the prospect of Illinois wildly expanding gambling doesn’t make you nervous, this should: Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers evidently are considering stacking the state’s oversight agency with friendlier gatekeepers.

State Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, a longtime sponsor of gambling legislation, recently predicted a push for more “pro-gaming” influence at the Illinois Gaming Board, the agency that regulates casinos and video gambling.


Pritzker’s office declined to answer our questions about his plans. But if Pritzker allows a shift away from the strict protocols that have kept Illinois casinos corruption free, he’ll be the third governor — after George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich — to make the colossal mistake of meddling in gambling oversight. This is no time to appoint regulators in a hurry to please lawmakers. With so much gambling expansion imminent, Illinois should double down on vetting, transparency and deliberation.

Legislators this month passed a massive expansion of gambling that includes casinos in Chicago and five other locales, along with slot machines and gambling tables at horse racing tracks; slot machines at Chicago airports; and legalized sports betting, including at venues such as Soldier Field, Wrigley Field and the United Center. Did your eyeballs convert to slot machine dollar signs yet? A gambling bonanza, and all the risks and problems associated with it, is headed to Illinois.


Pritzker has not yet signed the gambling legislation, but his support is expected. Link said plans are afoot to sweep out members of the Gaming Board. Note that the current board approaches its regulatory roles thoughtfully and thoroughly. That careful pace has frustrated lawmakers who support gambling expansion, and industry insiders who want quick regulatory decisions.

Link and other pro-gambling lawmakers in the past have tried to fire Gaming Board officials who got in their way. But Illinois citizens deserve a fair and clean process, not a rush job.

Pritzker’s team has only released a statement on the prospective shake-up: “All of the governor’s current appointees will all comply with the language contained in (the bill). We look forward to having a skilled and diverse board that will both regulate and effectively support gaming in Illinois.”

“Effectively support?” To what extent?

We would remind the freshman governor of 1999, when the legislature and a more politically driven Gaming Board steered a casino license to the village of Rosemont and to clout-heavy investors over the objections of Gaming Board staff. Some investors were found to have lied to investigators, and others allegedly had ties to organized crime. That subsequently prompted Attorney General Lisa Madigan to block the deal. A lengthy court battle ensued, costing the state nearly $1 billion in lost revenue.

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The license eventually went to a location in Des Plaines. By then, as years of news coverage attested, Ryan and Blagojevich were guilty in the court of public opinion of trying to hustle the Gaming Board.

The gateways to criminal conduct in the gambling industry have been wide and varied, from those who worked in casinos to contractors who picked up garbage to companies that sell gaming equipment — not to mention investors who’ve profited from the losses of players. At least four times since Illinois legalized casino gambling, the board has uncovered wrongdoing and inappropriate associations. One catch: a contract at the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin with a company part-owned by an organized crime associate, prompting a $3.2 million fine against the casino.

The Gaming Board’s responsibilities are vast. The board conducts background checks on thousands of casino employees and deeper background checks of designated “key persons” involved in the Illinois gambling industry. The board monitors vendors, contractors and incidents of employee discipline at each gambling location; investigates tavern and restaurant owners who apply for video poker machines; and audits revenue from hundreds of sites. That vetting takes time. But it also has kept the Illinois casino business honest.


Now the board will be tasked with a mountain of additional responsibilities. Insiders will press for quick turnaround. Lawmakers are hungry for revenue. The pressure to decide, to approve, to sign off, already is mounting.

Pritzker cannot, should not, soften the posture of the Gaming Board. The potential for scandal is too great. The cookie jar is inviting. Leave it to the experienced regulators at the Illinois Gaming Board to determine which hands get inside.