The continual stalling of New Jersey licensing approval for the world’s biggest online poker operator, Pokerstars, has triggered speculation that the state governor, Chris Christie, has interfered with the process at the behest of land casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a heavy Republican Party donor vehemently opposed to legalised online gambling.
A growing number of media reports in the United States are highlighting the speculation amid calls by one state politician that an investigation be launched into Christie’s activities on the issue.
Christie reportedly has presidential ambitions which would undoubtedly be helped by Adelson’s financial clout, and the ageing casino baron is allegedly a good friend to the New Jersey governor, apparently so much so that the governor discusses his decisions with the casino owner.
Adelson himself suggested the governor told him he had no ability to stop the legalisation of online gambling in New Jersey. In a 2013 interview, Adelson discussed his conversations with Christie about the legislation.
“I talk to him,” Adelson said. “He said he was about to be overridden anyway. He said it was about to be overridden or over-vetoed or whatever you call it. I like Governor Christie.”
Christie staff members have pointed out that Christie signed off on a law legalising online gambling two years ago, although political opponents claim the governor had little choice due to the overwhelming public, union and political support for the reforming legislation.
One of Christie’s most vociferous political critics, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, is adamant that Christie has inserted himself into the Pokerstars licensing process, claiming:
“Christie put a stop to it. With a high degree of confidence it’s apparent that’s exactly what has happened.
“All I know is PokerStars was ready to go and then, all of a sudden, when Adelson started his campaign to ban online gaming nationally … they put it on the back burner.”
Bob McDevitt, the president of Unite Here Local 54, which represents Atlantic City’s casino workers, echoed Lesniak, according to the publication Business Insider, asserting, “My impression was that PokerStars should have been already up and operating long before this point. My understanding is that it was the attorney general’s office and the governor who are holding up the approvals.”
The union president was scathing in his condemnation of the delays, noting:
“PokerStars is one of the only gaming companies that has been actively committed to pursuing a position in the Atlantic City market. Everybody else is running away. So, why would we rebuff a company that wants to make a major investment in Atlantic City while everybody else is sort of backing off? I just don’t understand it. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”
McDevitt said that PokerStars could bring 1,000 jobs to Atlantic City, and continued, “They spent so much time talking about Atlantic City with the summit and all this energy. … For the attorney general’s office and the governor’s office to stop the development of this PokerStars deal with Resorts is just unfathomable. I totally believe that the PokerStars deal is one of the biggest game changers that you could bring to Atlantic City.”
Another source told Business Insider, “There is no question in my mind that Sheldon Adelson is the reason why this hasn’t moved forward, and that’s the only reason.”
Following the acquisition of Pokerstars parent Rational Group by the Amaya Gaming firm last year and the departure of the former owners (see previous reports) the prospects for licensing in New Jersey looked positive, with David Rebuck, New Jersey’s chief of the Directorate of Gaming Enforcement, commenting:
“I think in the long run it [licensing Pokerstars] will be a good story for New Jersey. I’m optimistic that they know what the rules are, and I fully expect them to be very aggressive because they want to be here.”
But that was eight months ago and little has happened since; asked by media reporters for a progress report, DGE spokesmen would say only that the process was “ongoing”, whilst an Amaya spokesperson expressed surprise that the company has not yet been able to obtain a transactional waiver on Pokerstars.
One New Jersey politician, Assemblyman and Democrat John Wisniewski is going further than just criticising the governor, and has called for an investigation of Christie’s relationship with Adelson, saying:
“If there weren’t the allegations of inappropriate behavior on certain people’s parts, then none of this would be necessary. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, yes, it’s expensive, but if we weren’t enforcing the laws and standards that everyone is supposed to abide by, then what are we doing?”
Although Rebuck has thus far remained aloof from the political recriminations, he is respected as a straight shooter, and that could have repercussions for the governor if an enquiry is instituted and finds fault.
Sen. Lesniak commented this week: “One thing about Rebuck is, if he’s asked by law-enforcement authorities, he’s going to tell the truth.”