Casinos and the public service: a collision of motives

The Province’s hard driving campaign to promote gambling in Ontario has become an ethical train wreck.  The surest sign is the sudden defection of people from high levels of public trust into the employ of casino promoters.  Their recruitment by the industry is a sign of desperation.  Their unconcealed service of private interests, while engaged as public servants, calls the legitimacy of their enterprise into doubt.  That’s the most delicate language I can use.

The latest case is more absurd than egregious.  Robert Pritchard, academic, corporate executive, mandarin, is the chairman and “arbiter of ethics” for the Province’s regional transportation commission (Metrolinx).  He just signed on as a lobbyist for MGM Resorts, the most ambitious and aggressive of the casino builders laying siege to the City of Toronto.

How funny is that?  A man who has built his career on leadership of public institutions, and who now provides ethical guidance to a huge crown corporation, sees fit to add a Nevada-based gambling client to his portfolio, recusing himself from vital discussions about how the public will fund and build transit to the doors of a proposed monster casino in Toronto.

As weasels in the henhouse go, Pritchard is a lightweight compared to former Ontario Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan.  Duncan’s defection revealed a loop of self-interest that might be legally deniable, but not plausibly deniable.

Who was really served when Duncan endorsed the OLG’s casino expansion plan, sat silently while the crown agency rolled its PR artillery into Toronto, then jumped from public office to a law firm that represents casino interests in Ontario?  This was obviously good for the OLG, Duncan, and Great Canadian Gaming Corp., for whom Duncan’s new employer, McMillan LLP has facilitated deals totaling $1.35 billion since 2005 according to their website.  But how well was the public served?

This may sound like I’m splitting hairs, as Pritchard must have done to explain how he’ll shill for the gaming industry while continuing as the “arbiter of ethics” for Metrolinx.  But this is a hair that needs to be split all the way down to the follicle.

Duncan’s resignation press release said that he will provide strategic counsel to the clients of McMillan LLP.  Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, a McMillan client, is in active negotiation with OLG over the future of Mohawk Racetrack and Flamboro Downs, two horse racing and slot machine operations just west of Toronto.  In notes to Great Canadian’s third quarter statements, investors are advised that a new deal with OLG will significantly affect the value and performance of these two assets.  Many millions of dollars are at stake.

These casino expansions have people in Hamilton and Burlington as concerned as Torontonians are about the impact on their communities.  How can they not feel betrayed by a Minister of the Crown who switches sides this way?  One day, Duncan is overseeing the OLG in the interests of all Ontarians, and the next day, he’s providing strategic counsel at a law firm that serves casino corporations that have targeted their communities.  And, as we know from Great Canadian’s statements, the OLG, a public agency under his oversight as Finance Minister, was in active negotiations regarding casino expansions at Mohawk and Flamboro long before his resignation was announced.

As ethical wrecks go, this is a loud, messy one.  The high-speed collision of interests, truths and falsehoods, and the confusion of roles, just won’t stop.  It’s been crashing for months already, and the carnage shows no sign of ending.  By the time the caboose crumples into the pile and the smoke finally clears, damage to our trust in public institutions may be irreparable.

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