A recusal by House Speaker Brian Bosma from current casino legislation raises new questions about influence peddling in the Statehouse.
Stephen J. Beard/IndyStar, Stephen J. Beard/IndyStar
Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma is recusing himself from votes on legislation that would make some of the biggest changes to Indiana’s casino laws in a generation.
The reason: a potentially lucrative contract arranged by a casino owner.
In a letter to the House ethics committee, Bosma said his law firm is providing legal representation to the Vigo County Capital Improvement Board — a local entity that stands to benefit from the legislation, which would allow a casino in Terre Haute.
The letter is dated March 20, but did not become public until Monday, when reporters asked Bosma’s office about his absence during House votes on the measure. Bosma asked for the committee to post the letter online, but it never was.
The contract was arranged by Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson, one of two principal investors in Spectacle Entertainment.
The arrangement is raising new concerns about the company’s efforts to influence legislation at the Statehouse, where Spectacle is lobbying lawmakers for permission to move two lakeside casinos in Gary to more lucrative locations, in Terre Haute and closer to the interstate in Gary.
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Heightening the concerns are Bosma’s private discussions about the legislation with other lawmakers and casino companies, despite his decision to avoid any public votes on the topic. It’s the latest example of Bosma’s private legal work overlapping with legislation his clients are seeking.
In a brief interview with IndyStar on Tuesday, Bosma denied the contract Gibson arranged had any influence on his actions as a lawmaker. He said he has followed all House ethics rules.
Gibson, who at the time was a CIB board member, reached out to Bosma directly around June 1 about providing legal services to the CIB, according a June 14 letter Bosma wrote to legislative ethics officials. The CIB formally hired him June 20. Bosma provided that letter in response to questions from IndyStar this week.
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Meeting minutes show Bosma is handling the CIB work personally, attending monthly meetings and advising on contracts and property acquisition for a planned $32.5 million convention center project in Terre Haute. Gibson has since stepped down from the CIB to pursue a private hotel development in conjunction with the convention center.
The casino would be a separate project, and Bosma says he has not discussed it with Gibson or the CIB.
The changes to Indiana’s casino laws that Gibson and his partners at Spectacle are seeking would constitute the state’s biggest expansion of gambling in at least a decade. Allowing Spectacle to move its two casinos would increase the value of its two gaming licenses by hundreds of millions of dollars, according to estimates by competitors and some lawmakers.
As the House’s most powerful member, Bosma has considerable influence over legislation. He appoints committee chairs, decides which committees handle each bill and plays a key role in deciding how campaign money raised by the Republican caucus is spent.
He is also a partner at the Indianapolis law firm of Kroger Gardis & Regas, where he leads the firm’s government practice group and specializes in municipal law.
In his letter to the ethics committee last month, Bosma says he will recuse himself from voting on or presiding over the casino legislation, even though he is not required to do so under House ethics rules because he has no “direct personal or pecuniary interest” in the measure.
“I have carefully considered this course of action and believe it is appropriate to safeguard the public’s trust in the Indiana House of Representatives,” he says in the letter.
The letter’s date coincided with the bill’s first hearing in the House. The measure has since passed both the House and Senate. Lawmakers from the two chambers are now trying to work out differences between their two versions.
Behind the scenes
Despite distancing himself from the bill in public, IndyStar found, Bosma has been involved in conversations about the legislation behind the scenes. He held multiple private meetings with casino companies — including at least one with Spectacle early in the session.
Bosma on Tuesday confirmed the meeting with Spectacle, but dismissed any concerns.
“People have the right to have a conversation with elected leaders in the state,” he said. “They got no special treatment any different than anybody else.”
He also said the measure was discussed in a closed-door House Republican caucus meeting, and that he may have spoken privately to Rep. Todd Huston, co-chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
And Bosma has commented publicly on the measure, sometimes staking out positions at public events or during his weekly media availabilities with reporters. After a House committee earlier this month added a $100 million fee to legislation that would allow Spectacle to move one of its licenses, for example, Bosma told reporters he thought it was appropriate to charge a fee, but said he wasn’t sure if $100 million was the right amount.
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“It’s very clear that the movement of the one license and possible relocation of the other creates an enormous amount of wealth,” he said. “So I think it’s appropriate since the state has to approve these licenses, regulate the facilities, that a fee is charged for that. I don’t know exactly what the number is, but I’m certain (the House Ways and Means Committee) will come to the proper conclusion.”
The following week, the House Ways and Means Committee made changes to the bill that reduced the fee to $50 million, though that still makes it costlier for Spectacle to move its licenses than in an earlier Senate version.
When asked Tuesday about his continued involvement with the bill, Bosma once more emphasized that he has followed all House rules.
“I had conversations, again in accordance with our rules. I’ve not advocated for or against any position on the bill,” he said. “My only advice to those who were working on the bill was that it was not going to go in the budget, it needed to be a stand-alone bill. And if a county was going to receive the right to have gaming, they needed to have a referendum like everyone else.”
Julia Vaughn, policy director for the government accountability group Common Cause Indiana, said Bosma did the right thing by recusing himself. But his involvement behind the scenes and Gibson’s personal role in arranging the contract for Bosma are ethical red flags, she said.
“It’s quite coincidental that this one person that just happens to be so involved in this casino project, would be the one to bring the speaker on,” she said. “That certainly makes this thing smell a lot more than if it had been someone not directly involved.”
Bosma said he was unaware of Spectacle’s casino plans when he took the CIB job.
He said he did not know off the top of his head how much he was being paid under the arrangement.
“It’s a large project,” he offered.
IndyStar has filed a public records request for the contract.
It’s also unclear to what extent Gibson was involved with Spectacle when he hired Bosma. Filings with the Secretary of State show the company was organized in March 2018 and Gibson is listed in later news releases as one of the company’s two principle investors. In an interview with the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, Gibson said he hadn’t officially made a “final decision” to join Spectacle as of July, but was “considering the opportunity.”
Neither Gibson nor Spectacle’s attorney returned messages from IndyStar.
Spectacle formally announced its plans to buy the Gary casinos in November.
The company is already taking heat for flying Gov. Eric Holcomb on a private jet to a pair of Republican Governors Association meetings last year in Arizona and Colorado.
The two round-trip flights, valued at about $50,000 total, gave Ratcliff and his business partners hours of exclusive access to the governor. One of the flights came just a day before Ratcliff and Gibson announced the company’s plans to purchase the two casinos in Gary.
Tax vote, then a contract
The casino bill isn’t the only Vigo County-related legislation that Bosma has been involved with.
He voted to authorize a new food and beverage tax in Vigo County just two weeks before Gibson approached him about the CIB contract. The new tax was expected to raise up to $2.1 million a year, with the money going to the CIB to help fund its convention center plans.
In his June 14 letter to ethics officials, Bosma acknowledged that his work for CIB could raise questions.
“I am mindful of my position as both legislator and current Speaker of the Indiana House, that my firm’s engagement by a local entity that recently received authorization to implement a food and beverage tax may meet with some concern or criticism,” Bosma wrote.
But he argued he had “no direct involvement in advocating” for the tax beyond his vote in favor of it. He had no idea the CIB would offer him a contract when he voted for the measure, he said.
Speaking to IndyStar on Tuesday, Bosma said he doesn’t believe Gibson or other CIB members hired him to influence the legislature.
“I’m an excellent lawyer,” Bosma said. “…They hired a good law firm that does construction and public affairs.”
In comments Gibson made to the Terre Haute Tribune-Star at the time of Bosma’s hiring, he said there was no conflict of interest because the food and beverage tax “bill progressed through the (Indiana) Senate.”
While the bill originated in the Senate, it also passed through the House.
In fact, it was among several bills that did not get final votes before the midnight deadline during last year’s regular legislative session. Bosma, in consultation with then-Senate leader David Long and Holcomb, decided to include it among the five bills that got a second chance during a one-day special session in May. It passed the House 74-20 and the governor signed it into law the same day.
Other conflicts of interest?
Conflict of interest concerns involving Bosma’s private legal work aren’t new.
In 2015, he was criticized for failing to disclose he’d done legal work for the Indy Eleven soccer franchise after a proposal to fund a new stadium for the team was added to an unrelated bill late in the legislative process.
Bosma acknowledged his work for the team only after reporters pressed him on it. The stadium proposal passed the House, with Bosma recusing himself, but it ultimately failed.
Another soccer stadium proposal is back this year, and Bosma is again refraining from voting on it.
Such conflicts are not uncommon. Because Indiana has a part-time legislature, lawmakers typically have a primary job outside of the Statehouse. That can make the conflict of interest lines blurry, especially for attorneys who are not required to disclose their clients.
IndyStar asked Tuesday what other clients Bosma is currently representing.
“None of your business,” he said before walking away.
Contact IndyStar reporter Tony Cook at 317-444-6081 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter: @IndyStarTony.
Call IndyStar Statehouse reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.
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