TO: Ohio Reporters, Editors, and Editorial Boards
FROM: Michael McGovern, ProgressOhio
DATE: February 2021
RE: Links Between Casinos’ Sports Betting Effort and HB 6 Corruption
As we enter a new General Assembly, casinos appear to be poised for a big win with help from the same policymakers, lobbyists and consultants who supported the nuclear bailout law now at the center of the FBI’s ongoing bribery investigation.
As Ohio looks to create a new billion-dollar industry, it is vital that our state has full, transparent discussion about the individuals and entities involved. We must learn the lessons of the HB 6 fiasco and approach any legislation that favors particular corporations with extreme caution.
Same Shady Characters
The lobbyists and elected officials working to promote the interests of casinos bear a striking resemblance to those behind the HB 6 fiasco.
Lobbyist Neil Clark – indicted as part of the scheme – told reporters the FBI lured him to a 2019 meeting by promising introductions to hotel developers who want to offer sports betting. Clark didn’t realize until later that he was talking with undercover FBI agents running a sting operation. No other details of the sting have emerged, but evidence of the links between casino allies and the FBI’s bribery investigation continue to grow.
Lobbyist Leah Pappas represents both FirstEnergy and casino interests; and lobbyists Brooke Cheney and Victor Hipsley represent casinos owners and developer Jacobs Entertainment and bailout beneficiaries the Ohio Coal Association.
Former House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson sits on the Ohio Casino Control Commission. She also served on the board of Empowering Ohio’s Economy, a dark money group financed mostly by AEP. It funneled money to another dark money group, Generation Now, which entered a guilty plea last week to federal racketeering charges that it was the vehicle through which the bribes to Householder flowed that helped to finance the nuclear bailout.
Former state Sen. John Eklund served as lead sponsor of a Senate bill to put sports betting under the Casino Control Commission. He is senior counsel at the law firm Calfee Halter & Griswold that also employs Pappas. The firm also worked for Partners for Progress, FirstEnergy’s dark money entity.
On its website, Calfee lists gaming among its areas of expertise. Even after the FBI indictments, of Householder and others, Eklund defended the bailout, calling it “sound public policy” and fighting efforts to repeal it.
Before Mike DeWine won the governor’s race, he and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted both competed to be the Republican Party’s nominee for governor. DeWine appeared reluctant to consider sports wagering and at times voiced opposition. Husted, however, made it clear that he’d consider it. Husted agreed to become DeWine’s running mate and now they both support allowing sports betting.
DeWine was not FirstEnergy’s top choice for governor. Early campaign contributions show that the powerful Akron-based utility preferred former Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor or former House Speaker Jon Husted, but neither could overcome DeWine’s popularity. FirstEnergy contributed to DeWine’s gubernatorial committee only after Husted joined the ticket as his running mate. FirstEnergy would later contribute to DeWine’s transition account, over $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association, and to a dark money group supporting DeWine’s daughter, Alice DeWine, who ran for Greene County prosecutor.
After taking office, DeWine – with strong urging from Husted – made two important appointments that would serve FirstEnergy’s interests. He tapped long-time pro-utility lawyer Sam Randazzo to chair the PUCO and he made former FirstEnergy lobbyist Dan McCarthy his director of legislative affairs.
Profits Over Students
With Gov. Mike DeWine’s state budget proposal now public, debate over the two-year spending plan moves the Ohio General Assembly where legislators will confront two priorities that could be headed for a collision: Bringing legal sports betting to Ohio and approving a constitutional system of paying for public schools.
With the multitude of priorities the administration and lawmakers want to advance in the budget, a new source of state revenue — sports betting — will likely be an attractive opportunity. There is significant disagreement about whether casinos or Ohio’s lottery should administer future sports betting.
If Ohio is serious about fixing our broken school funding system, we need a serious public, transparent discussion of this issue, rather than a quick giveaway to another state-sponsored monopoly. Our goal must be to provide the best return for Ohio taxpayers, not secretly enriching a particular private interest. As we continue to grapple with the repercussions of the HB 6 scandal, we cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.