CASINO BOARD LOSES ITS GADFLY

Published: Friday, January 6, 1995
Edition: THIRD
Section: METRO
Page: B7
Column: James Gill
Byline: By JAMES GILL

Text:

We have it on the authority of Gov. Edwards that the "only important vote" the state casino board ever took was in 1993.

Since we pay eight of the board members $60,000, and the chairman $70,000, one important decision hardly seems to represent value for money.

No earth-shattering issues will face the board in the foreseeable future either. When chief executive Will Whitmore announced that he will quit in a few months, he explained that things are "winding down."

Just as well; nobody concerned for Louisiana's reputation could wish for more action from a board that has been described by one of its own members as "disgusting."

That member, Vice Chairman Billy Nungesser, has protested regularly as the board has lurched from one grubby dodge to another. Now Nungesser has received the highest accolade for integrity available in Louisiana's public life: He has been fired by Edwards.

Edwards is reported to have "bristled" at suggestions that he kicked Nungesser off the board because he was its sole dissident voice. Why, that couldn't have been the motive, Edwards allowed, because Nungesser voted with the majority in that one and only important moment when it chose Harrah's over the Hemmeter group to operate the Rivergate casino.

Nice try, governor.

As the former chairman of the state Republican Party and a businessman not associated with any scandals, Nungesser is not one of the governor's natural bedfellows. Indeed, his appointment to the casino board could be explained only by Edwards' celebrated sense of humor.

Edwards at the time was in fine form with the jokes, and had just pledged that he would appoint such upstanding souls to the casino board that "pristine" would be the only way to describe it.

Edwards shot his bolt pretty quickly in the pristine department, of course, and wheeling out Nungesser soon came to look like tokenism. Three of Edwards' other nominees fell by the wayside when it turned out they had filed for bankruptcy, while a fourth refused to allow a background check.

When the board was finally in place, gambling industry executives noted that, while most of its members had no obvious qualifications to regulate a casino, they sure had a knack for befriending politicians.

Indeed, they must be a pretty outgoing bunch altogether, and one or more of them evidently discovered that casino operators can be pretty congenial company too, evidently forgetting, in the warm glow of budding friendship, that regulators aren't supposed to accept any favors from the regulated.

The board started an investigation into possible improprieties, but abandoned it and urged Attorney General Richard Ieyoub to call off his dogs, too, which he refused to do.

As Nungesser pointed out, this was not calculated to boost public confidence in the board's ability to keep the casino industry straight, but nobody paid any attention.

Even the most elementary ethical provisions can prove controversial for this board, as, for instance, when Nungesser proposed that the mayor, City Council members and other city officials overseeing the casino should wait for two years after leaving office before accepting employment from its owners.

The motion passed, but only 5-4 and only after Joan Heisser, named to the board at the recommendation of then-Mayor Barthelemy, argued vehemently against it and the governor's good friend Jack Frank suggested that hiring former public officials was job creation and economic development.

Out-of-town board members voted themselves up to $1,200 a month to rent accommodations in New Orleans when they attend their meetings, held about once a week lately. Sallie Page of Alexandria wound up paying rent on an apartment occupied by her daughter, Gerard Thomas of Natchitoches charged for nights spent at a condo he co-owns himself and James Vilas of Baton Rouge became his mother's tenant.

For good measure, Vilas' mother borrowed the money to buy her condominium from a company hired for asbestos removal at the casino site.

Nungesser may have sealed his fate recently when he opined that the casino board "can't do anything right." Evidently the governor figured that putting him on the board wasn't such a good joke after all.

James Gill is a staff writer.


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