PROVIDENCE, R.I. - A federal grand jury is exposing the seamy side of Rhode Island's political opposition to a Narragansett Indian casino.
A Sept. 9 indictment charged the top executives of Lincoln Park, the state's greyhound racing track, and its English owner Wembley plc, with conspiring to bribe the former speaker of the state House of Representatives and other legislators, among other things, "to prevent legislation facilitating the development of a Narragansett Indian Tribe casino."
The accused are Nigel Potter, chief executive office of Wembley plc, and Daniel Bucci, general manager of the dog track. According to the indictment, they "devised a scheme and artifice to defraud the state of Rhode Island and its citizens of the honest services of John B. Harwood and one or more members of the Rhode Island legislature."
Although the former Speaker and current state representative Harwood was not charged, the indictment listed a series of interstate and international faxes between Bucci and Potter discussing possible multi-million dollar payments to Harwood's law partner and cousin Daniel V. McKinnon. There was no evidence money actually changed hands and McKinnon denied receiving any payments other than for legal services.
Wembley until recently owned the famed tennis stadium near London. Its main asset now is the Rhode Island track and its revenue stream from video lottery terminals (VLTs) provided by the Rhode Island Lottery Commission
In addition to blocking the Narragansett casino, said the indictment, Wembley considered asking the law firm of Harwood and McKinnon to obtain an additional 1,000 VLTs for the Lincoln Park track and gain authorization from the Rhode Island Lottery Commission for coin-operated slot machines.
The Lottery Commission approved the additional VLTs earlier this year.
Harwood and McKinnon issued separate statements denying any unethical conduct. Harwood said that as speaker he had recused himself from gaming issues. McKinnon said, "Aside from my routine hourly billings for legal work performed, I have never asked for or received any money relating to Lincoln Park. I have never been asked to do anything unethical or illegal, and certainly I have never been offered money in return for political influence."
The indictment does not say whether any bribes were actually delivered, and it makes no charges against any Rhode Island politicians.
But Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas is citing the indictment as evidence for his strong belief that "influence at high levels stymied" the tribe's attempts since 2000 to get the legislature to approve a statewide referendum on plans for a casino. The referendum is necessary because the Narragansetts are the only federally recognized tribe in the country explicitly denied coverage by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). This exception was contained in a rider inserted without hearings into the Omnibus Appropriations Act in 1996 by the late U. S. Sen. John Chaffee, R.-R.I., overturning federal court decisions upholding the Narragansetts' right to a casino.
This long history of frustration over casino development underlay the tribe's decision to open a smoke shop in mid-July and perhaps contributed to the violence of the confrontation when Rhode Island State Police forcibly closed it down.
"We have tried to play by the rules, and see where it got us," Thomas told the Providence Journal. "We believe the people always wanted a vote on a casino and that's the right thing to do, especially after this."
On Feb. 4, the Narragansetts won approval from the West Warwick town council for a casino and until recently its financial backer, Harrah's Entertainment, had been paying the local government $25,000 quarterly for impact studies. Harrah's suspended the payments in June, citing the lack of movement in the legislature on the statewide referendum.
The 17-page grand jury indictment cited 21 faxes between Wembley employees in the U.S. and its headquarters in the United Kingdom discussing the proposed payments to McKinnon. Although they primarily concern the VLTs, by far the main source of income for Lincoln Park and its British owners, they also cast a harsh light on the struggle over the Narragansett casino.
According to the indictment, one Dec. 1, 2000 fax depicted a bidding war for legislative support. The charge said, without quoting the fax directly, "Defendant Daniel Bucci also advised defendant Nigel Potter that defendant Lincoln Park's supporters were being offered more money to support the Narragansett Indian Tribe."
Neither the indictment nor the U.S. Attorney's office said anything more on the subject. Chief Sachem Thomas dismissed the allegation, telling a local reporter that counter-offers lay beyond the tribe's resources. "It's hard to get blood from a stone," he said. "It's hard to offer something when you don't have it."
At the time, the tribe was backed by Boyd Gaming, which severed the connection and was replaced by Harrah's in 2002.
The indictment also quotes a cryptic statement from Bucci that "the day of embarrassingly inept $100 political tix passed us @ warp speed." It appeared in a Nov. 21, 2000 fax to the British company's American subsidiary, Wembley USA in Colorado, asking for a decision "on 'rewarding' and 'incentivising' when necessary."
Wembley plc announced Sept. 10 that both Bucci and Potter were taking paid leaves. They are scheduled for arraignment Sept. 19. In the meantime, Lincoln Park remains open under new officers.
Rhode Island officials are expressing reluctance to take action against the dog track until completion of the trial. Its VLTs are expected to produce about $177 million this year in state revenue.