The Mississippi Gaming Commission has remained notably free of public controversy for more than 25 years, but a letter claims that has changed.
The letter lays out “serious concerns” about the regulation of casinos in Mississippi since Gulfport attorney Al Hopkins was appointed chairman of the Gaming Commission in 2015.
The letter was written by Larry Gregory, former executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission and now executive director of Mississippi Gaming & Hospitality Association, which represents the 26 casinos operating in the state, including 12 on the Coast.
Hopkins was out of town and didn’t return a call from the Sun Herald.
In the six-page letter to state Rep. Casey Eure, R-Biloxi, chairman of the House Gaming Committee, Gregory says the casino industry “. . . is concerned as it has watched the commission dedicate an extraordinary amount of its resources to assist RW and DH.”
RW Development and Diamondhead Real Estate, to which Gregory refers, were turned down for casino site approval by two different Gaming Commissions.
RW Development first asked for site approval in 2008 at U.S. 90 and Veterans Avenue in Biloxi and was denied because the company doesn’t have control of the property to the water’s edge. Diamondhead Real Estate was denied site approval in 2014 on property Gregory said is “thousands of feet from the Bay of St. Louis.”
When neither company appealed those rulings, the decisions become final under Mississippi regulations, Gregory said.
“The law is clear that once the time for an appeal expires, the decisions become final and cannot be reconsidered,” he said.
A second attempt
But both companies were allowed to again file for site approval under the current Gaming Commission and “special hearings” were held in March 2017. Allen Godfrey, executive director of the MGC, recommended denial of the two sites and the commission voted 3-0 to accept his recommendation.
Both companies appealed the denial and are awaiting a ruling from the circuit court.
Three months later, in June 2017, RW filed a third application and the commission again allowed it to go forward, Gregory said.
When the third application was on the agenda, Gregory said, “Chairman Hopkins announced that he was not allowing the executive director to make a recommendation on the RW III application for site approval, stating that none was required under his view of the law.”
Gregory said this position by the chairman goes against the commission’s own legal counsel and contradicts the process followed by the commission for the previous 25 years.
Hopkins made a motion to approve the site but did not receive a second from commissioners Jerry Griffith Sr. and Tom Gresham.
“The significance of not allowing a recommendation is that if the chair’s motion had received a second, then the site would have been approved,” Gregory said. When the executive director recommends denial, regulations require a 3-0 vote from the commission.
Expansion of casino sites
The letter says the Gaming Commission has tried to change regulations to open land across from the sand beaches in Harrison and Hancock counties for casino sites. Gregory said the commission didn’t vote on the changes due to “widespread opposition.”
When legislators passed House Bill 45 to allow casinos to come on land after Hurricane Katrina, the intent was not to expand casinos in any manner, Gregory said. “In other words, if a casino site was illegal prior to Hurricane Katrina it would not be made legal by HB 45.”
In the 2018 legislative session, the House and Senate passed a resolution for the creation of a casino map on the Coast. The Legislature directed the heads of four state agencies — the Gaming Commission, Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER), Department of Marine Resources and the Secretary of State — “to develop a map indicating the geographic area on the Mississippi Coast that is eligible for licensed gaming under state law.” The legislature said the map would be for “efficiency and transparency.”
Gregory said the hospitality association understands the gaming commissioners have directed Godfrey not to participate in drawing the map. He said that even if the map is used just as a guide, “It is questionable whether the commissioners have the authority to direct the MGC executive director not to comply with HCR 85 — again, a joint resolution issued by the House and Senate.”
Mississippi has a free-market system of licensing casinos, which means that every company that can meet the requirements and get the funds can build on an approved casino site.
Gregory said in his letter that RW and DH argue that MGHA is motivated by fear of new competition.
“MGHA consists of 26 casino operators that are competitors,” he said. “Competition is not the issue.” He said the organization wants to see the laws are followed.