Published: Sunday, March 28, 1993
Edition: THIRD
Section: METRO
Page: B7
Column: James Gill
Byline: By James Gill


Well, here's another fine mess.

Opposition forces could hardly do more to discredit the casino deal than the government agencies charged with bringing it to pass.

Nobody who gets mad at New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy can be all bad, but state casino board members had no call to throw a tantrum last week when hizzoner refused to delay signing the Rivergate lease with Christopher Hemmeter.

Sure, the selection process appears, as board members put it, "tainted" and "screwed up beyond belief." But it makes no difference when Barthelemy signs the lease; the deal being done, that is no more than a minor technicality.

As it happens, the mayor will not get to attach his monicker as soon as he had hoped because the City Council discovers it needs more than five minutes to ratify a 600-page document that gives New Orleans the shaft in so many ways that more than 200 amendments have been proposed.

Barthelemy must have had his appointments confused when he went out to negotiate the lease. He was evidently under the impression that he was due to present someone with the keys to the city.

Casino board members want Barthelemy to hold off on the lease until they can solicit bids to operate the casino Hemmeter threatens to build on the Rivergate site.

If Barthelemy goes ahead and signs, board members say, everyone will assume that his partner, Caesars World, has a lock on the operating license and nobody else will put in a bid.

So the board thinks that, until Barthelemy actually outs with the pen and John Hancocks the papers, everyone will assume competition is wide open? Do these guys know the war is over?

If Barthelemy doesn't sign in April, the whole world knows he will sign later. It is not as though there were any doubt that Hemmeter has everything sewn up.

The board can, if it wishes, delay matters by filing suit to challenge the constitutionality of some of the lease provisions. But nothing is going to change the fact that Hemmeter is the chosen one, and the casino board's options are to like it or lump it.

Any would-be applicants for the casino license likely to be scared off by a signed lease will already have thrown in the towel because they believe the fix is in.

It is theoretically possible that the City Council might insist on lease changes that Hemmeter could not accept, and, indeed, his lawyer claims that some of the proposed amendments would make it impossible to raise the necessary scratch.

But surely there can't be anyone in the state so detached from reality as to believe the council might produce four votes to kill the Hemmeter deal. Well, maybe those guys on the casino board.

Everyone else will have noticed that Hemmeter has an amazing knack for getting what he wants from state and local officials.

The lease as negotiated by Barthelemy is so short on financial guarantees for the city, and gives the council so few powers of oversight, that a few concessions would not seriously incommode the great developer.

The state Supreme Court, meanwhile, is apparently not about to put the kibosh on the casino. The court, which will eventually rule on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the casino legislation, has refused a request that it take up the case directly.

Instead, the suit must wend its way through the lower courts, meaning a delay of a year or so. It would take a brave court to throw out the casino laws at that stage, and it is unlikely that Hemmeter loses much sleep fretting about the possibility.

Still, the judiciary is supposed to be independent, so it cannot be taken for granted that the court will uphold the legislation.

The only certainties are that Hemmeter and Barthelemy will sign their lease and the casino board will award the license to Caesars, and who cares which comes first?

James Gill is a staff writer.

Copyright The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.