State accused of stalling on Twin River ‘casino’ issue
01:00 AM EST on Monday, December 14, 2009
By Katherine Gregg
Journal State House Bureau
PROVIDENCE — More than three months after filing a complaint about Twin River pitching itself as a “casino” in its advertising, Narragansett Tribal Councilman Randy Noka is still waiting for the attorney general’s office and the Carcieri administration to take a position.
Calling the months-long lack of response “unsatisfactory,” Noka said, “Lincoln will probably be a casino before I get an answer” after being apprised by a newspaper reporter Thursday of the status of the complaint he filed, as a citizen, with Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch in late August, in which he alleged violations of the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
The attorney general’s office took no position, opting instead to send the complaint over to the head of the state Lottery with this explanation from Deputy Attorney General Gerald J. Coyne: “Because the Twin River facility is regulated by the Rhode Island Lottery, your agency, rather than this office has jurisdiction to address Mr. Noka’s complaint.”
In his Sept. 21 letter to state Lottery chief Gerald Aubin, Coyne noted the complaint also alleges a violation of the state’s false advertising law.
“In order to avoid duplicating the efforts of your agency, it is requested that the results of your review be provided to this office, so that we may evaluate whether any further action is warranted with regard to the remainder of Mr. Noka’s allegation,” Coyne wrote.
With the Lottery reduced in recent years from a stand-alone agency to a division within the Department of Revenue, Aubin did not respond to repeated inquiries in recent days.
But his boss, Gary Sasse, who doubles as director of revenue and the Department of Administration, issued this statement in response to inquiries.
He said that “Mr. Noka’s assertions regarding a possible violation of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act [are] being reviewed by lawyers for DOR; however, we’d note that our initial review indicates that there is no applicable Rhode Island law related to the definition or use of the word “casino.” In fact, the dictionary definition of “casino” is “A public room or building for gambling and other entertainment.”
“We would be able to comment further when DOR’s review is complete.”
Noka said he wasn’r “surprised I haven’t gotten an answer yet,” or that his complaint had been “punted” from one state official to another, but he views their inaction so far as “a violation of my rights and every citizen’s right” to have state authorities enforce state laws.
The tribe tried and failed to win voter approval in 2006 for a Harrah’s-backed Narragansett Indian casino in West Warwick, after a heated campaign in which the owners of the Lincoln track-and-slot parlor played a major role in financing the opposition.
Twin River’s own fortunes have since turned, with the track in bankruptcy and its creditors poised to take over.
But in 2006, Twin River’s owners funneled at least $2.7 million into a successful campaign to defeat the proposed West Warwick casino, and then started touting their own newly renovated gambling hall as a casino after introducing “virtual” blackjack tables and roulette tables, and winning state approval to stay open round-the-clock.
Under state law, voters have to approve a constitutional amendment for a privately owned and operated casino. UTGR, the holding company that owns Twin River, has not sought a constitutional amendment to operate as a casino.
“I write to you cognizant and appreciative of the fact that the Narragansetts receive a small percentage of VLT [video lottery terminal] revenue from Twin River,” Noka wrote in his original complaint. “However, what’s fair is fair and the law is the law. … Frankly, I am surprised and dismayed that neither Governor Carcieri, nor you have acted to order Twin River to cease holding itself out as a casino in Rhode Island.
“After all, the governor was vehemently anti-casino when we were seeking one and often referred to casinos as creating ‘economic wastelands,’ ” he wrote.
But Twin River has taken the position — with tacit Lottery approval — that it does not have to [secure a constitutional amendment] in order to offer its current gambling menu.
Spokeswoman Patti Doyle said Twin River’s marketing team also “took a look at the dictionary definition [of a casino] as a place of entertainment and gambling,” and decided they had “latitude to use the word in advertising.”
In 2005, state lawmakers decided to give the Narragansetts, who have no role in Twin River’s operation or ownership, a small percentage of its video-slot revenue, which totaled $674,130 during the year that ended June 30.