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Gaming Company Gaming Legislature?

*Updated: See Editor’s Note* Although V.I. law prohibits casino principals, agents or intermediaries from making political donations, a family member connected to gaming company VIGL Operations, slated to take over the territory’s racetracks, donated to at least two senatorial campaigns this election.

The contributions came ahead of this month’s special Legislative session to consider changes allowing Video Lottery Terminals at the Clinton Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas. One of the two senators so far confirmed to have received a donation asserts the contribution was returned.

Gov. Kenneth Mapp introduced VIGL at a press conference in late October, saying that the company plans to invest $30 million to revitalize the local horseracing industry. Mapp said that under the terms of the government’s deal with VIGL, the company will make a $30 million investment in both the racetrack on St. Thomas and Randall Doc James Racetrack on St. Croix, which includes the purchase of an extra 12.5 acres on St. Thomas that will help to expand Clinton Phipps.

As part of the agreement, the company will also be allowed to operate “racinos” at both tracks, with a limited number of video lottery terminals at each site.

With the possibility of VIGL taking over the management of both tracks, there is a need for local laws that govern the sport of horseracing – such as the consolidation of both districts’ Horse Racing Commissions – to be revised, and Mapp called the Legislature into special session on Nov. 28 to approve the revisions, which are being made to the V.I. Casino and Resort Control Act, along with the lease and franchise agreements with VIGL for both racetracks.

At the October press conference, Mapp said VIGL Operations, which currently operates the renovated Caravelle Hotel and Casino in Christiansted, St. Croix, has already been vetted and licensed by the Casino Control Commission, while its parent company, B&B Amusements, has designed and operated entertainment venues in Illinois and Louisiana.

After the October press conference, VIGL managing member Lance Griffith said VIGL has been working with the government more than a year on the agreements but has not had experience before in operating a racetrack.

On the mainland, VIGL’s operations are focused on casinos and entertainment venues, but Griffith said that to operate locally, the company has hired a director of racing operations that will help guide the management of the tracks. The company did not participate in a bidding process prior to getting the franchise agreements, he said.

“The only way to be a racino operator in the territory is if you hold a hotel casino license also and there are only two entities in the territory that are able to do that,” he said after the October press conference.

While Mapp also said after the October press conference that horse owners in both districts are in favor of the proposal, others in the community, such as representatives from the Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands, have voiced their opposition to senators, saying that by allowing VIGL to run casinos at the tracks, the government is decreasing V.I. Lottery revenues that are earmarked for educational and other programs throughout the territory.

“What about the V. I. Lottery which is in charge of the VLT program in this district?” St. Thomas Democratic District Chairman Edgar Baker Phillips asked in a letter recently sent to the Legislature.

“We have already expressed our concern about the impact an outside racino will have on the bonuses to GERS retirees, the educational fund, the pharmaceutical fund for seniors and veterans funding. ‘Back dooring’ 200 slot machines in this district certainly will affect the approximately $10 million dollars our government receives every year from the VLT program and will reduce funding to these important programs,” Phillips wrote

During the October press conference, Mapp said that the president of Southland Gaming, the operator of local VLT machines whose revenues are split between the different funds, had “personally assured” him that the racinos will have “very little impact” on Southland’s VLT operations in the territory.

But as senators prepare to take up the issue in special session, at least one senator said they have received contributions from Front Row Associates, whose president is the wife of VIGL local consultant Jack Hearon.

The Source has obtained a copy of a check to at least one other candidate from Front Row’s Lauren Manera for $500. The check is dated Oct. 15.

Among the senators called by the Source on Tuesday, Sen. Janette Millin Young confirmed that she had received a check from Front Row but said she returned it after she was told that there was a possible association with VIGL.

“To be perfectly frank, I have not done the research on the company Front Row Associates, but I did receive other calls about this,” Millin Young said. “They told me there may be an association with the casino folks and, when I learned that, I immediately returned the contribution, even after asking, because I did ask the VIGL liaison who these people were, and I was told emphatically that they are not associated. I didn’t do my own research but I preferred to be cautious and I returned the contribution.”

Millin Young said no one has lobbied her about the upcoming bill but that she is concerned “about the timing” of Mapp’s legislation and the impact it would have on the territory.

“So, any appearance of impropriety is not something I want to be associated with,” she added. Senator-elect Kevin Rodriguez also confirmed a campaign contribution from Front Row, but said he was also not aware of an association. If there is, the check will be returned, Rodriguez said, adding that the check was delivered to his campaign offices by former Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards who, at the October press conference, was introduced as a consultant to VIGL.

Richards has not returned calls for comment on the matter.

Family members of casino agents or intermediaries are not specifically enumerated in the V.I. statute prohibiting campaign contributions from casino owners or principals, employees, agents or intermediaries, but, according to the V.I. Casino and Resort Control Act, any direct or indirect contributions from VIGL would be.

According to the law, “no applicant for or holder of a casino license, nor any holding, intermediary or subsidiary company thereof, or any officer, director, casino key employer, or principal employee of an applicant or holder of a casino license or of any holding, intermediary or subsidiary company thereof, nor any person or agent on behalf of any applicant, holder, company or person, shall directly or indirectly, pay or contribute any money or thing of value to any candidate for nomination or election to any public office in the territory, or to any committee of any political party in this territory, or any group, committee or association organized in support of any such candidate or political party.”

Editor’s Note: According to VIGL Managing Member Lance Griffith, Hearon is "an independent consultant hired by VIGL to help with local issues," not a principal with the company as initially reported. As noted in the story, V.I. law prohibits agents and intermediaries as well as principals from donating to political campaigns.

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