Some critics of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie accuse him of stalling a plan to bring one of the world’s largest online gambling companies to Atlantic City because Christie does not want to alienate Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which operates physical casinos.
Adelson is adamantly opposed to online gambling and is good friends with Christie, as evidenced by Adelson lending Christie his plane.
PokerStars, one of the world’s most popular online poker sites, had partnered with Atlantic City’s Resorts Casino Hotel to open a $10 million poker room but could not get a gaming license in New Jersey. Democratic State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who brought the bill to legalize online gambling in the state, accused Christie of stonewalling the project, saying, “Christie put a stop to it. With a high degree of confidence it’s apparent that’s exactly what has happened.”
Bob McDevitt, the president of Unite Here Local 54, which represents Atlantic City’s casino workers, echoed Lesniak, according to 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.”
One 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.”
PokerStars has been trying to build its business in New Jersey since January 2013, when it tried to buy the Atlantic Club Casino. That deal required approval from New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE). But the DGE dawdled, and the Atlantic Club closed in January 2014 after a bankruptcy sale. One ostensible reason for the delay by the DGE was that federal government had filed charges against PokerStars because it allegedly had American customers while the company was headquartered in the Isle of Man. PokerStars eventually paid over $500 million to settle with the U.S. government.
Last June, PokerStars attempted to appease the DGE by selling its parent company, Rational Group Ltd., to a Canadian group, Amaya Gaming, for almost $5 billion. In June, 2014, Amaya looked for a gaming license from New Jersey. David Rebuck, the director of the DGE, indicated things were looking good, saying, “I think in the long run it 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 eight months later, nothing has moved forward. Kerry Langan, a spokeswoman for the DGE, said Amaya’s license application for PokerStars was “ongoing.” Marie Jones, an attorney representing Amaya, told Business Insider, “We, of course, had hoped that we would be able to get transactional waivers rather quickly, especially in light of the fact that Amaya already has transactional waivers for other business it’s conducting in Atlantic City.”
McDevitt was irate, blasting, “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.”
He noted 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 gamechangers that you could bring to Atlantic City.”
Lesniak pointed to Adelson: “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.”
Adelson helped create the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling.
But Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, pointed out that Christie had signed the law allowing online gambling in New Jersey in February 2013. Lesniak responded that Christie couldn’t have stopped the legalization of online gambling in New Jersey, arguing that McDevitt’s union would have brought “thousands of workers, busloads, from Atlantic City to picket the governor.” McDevitt agreed.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) is considering an investigation of Christie’s relationship with Adelson. He said, “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?”
Lesniak thinks Rebuck would be the one to end the investigation, concluding, “One thing about Rebuck is, if he’s asked by law-enforcement authorities, he’s going to tell the truth. He’s not going to jump on that sword.”