Editorial: Corruption and casinos

The MetroWest Daily News

A little-noticed story that has surfaced in the aftermath of last week's Middleborough Town Meeting casino vote offers a useful reminder about the high-stakes game now playing out in Massachusetts.

Thousands of residents showed up for Middleborough's outdoor town meeting, and both state and local officials fretted about keeping the meeting orderly and the voting fair. Initial reports indicated few problems, other than noting that large numbers of citizens, especially seniors, were discouraged from attending by the high heat and humidity.

The pro-casino side won a strong endorsement of a deal selectmen had negotiated with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. Opponents of the agreement have since complained of casino-backers at the meeting who weren't residents and of ballot-stuffing, including a report of a police officer sticking "a wad of ballots" into a collection box. Middleborough officials have characterized the complaints as sour grapes, and they may be right.

But a Brockton Enterprise report notes that the police officer in charge of security at the town meeting, Lt. Bruce Gates, owns more than 200 acres of land in Middleborough abutting the property owned by the Wampanoags. The tribe confirmed that they are in negotiations with Gates and his siblings to purchase the land, which could be worth as much as $2 million.

Gates is not accused of doing anything wrong, but the case is a reminder that when it comes to votes in an open town meeting, people bring personal agendas into play. If the Wampanoags build a destination casino in Middleborough, much about that small town will change, including real estate values. Gambling makes people think they can get rich overnight through no effort of their own, not only when they are in a casino but when casino interests are knocking on their doors.

Nor is the suspicion directed at Gates unjustified. There's so much money to be made on casinos that it invites corruption. Two years ago a couple of executives of an international gaming company were convicted of attempting to pay Rhode Island's house speaker $4.5 million to clear the way for more slots at one of that state's dog tracks.

The Wampanoags' Middleborough move has opened the floodgates, with casinos now being proposed from Suffolk Downs to Palmer - and even some talk of a casino here in MetroWest. Between the proposal and the first bets, a string of public officials, from Washington (in the case of a tribal operation) to the Beacon Hill to town hall, will have to sign off on some part of the plans.

As we move further into this territory - if we move further, that is - it is essential that the Legislature establish clear rules and determine who is responsible for monitoring them. With this much money on the table, it's best to keep a close eye on all the players - and on the dealer as well.