Illinois’ massive gaming expansion bill that governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law in June was slated to help the Land of Lincoln at the very least keep pace in gambling, sports wagering, and gaming with its neighbors to the east in Indiana and eventually surpass the Hoosier State.
But amid the plans to open six new casinos and offer casino licenses to four racetracks throughout the state is an escalating battle between the Illinois Gaming Board and Rick Heidner, who owns Gold Rush Gaming and is one of the state’s largest providers of video gambling terminals.
Last week was not a good one for Heidner. Seven days ago, the IGB proposed revoking his video gaming license as the agency filed a complaint alleging two counts of violating the Video Gaming Act. The IGB claims Heidner made an “illegal inducement” of $5 mm in November 2018 to a chain of betting parlors to prevent the new owners of Laredo Hospitality Ventures from removing Gold Rush machines from 44 locations.
At the regularly scheduled IGB meeting Thursday in downtown Chicago, the state’s regulators demanded Gold Rush “disassociate” with Director of Operations Ronald Bolger.
“In an interview with IGB agents during an unrelated investigation, Mr. Bolger admitted that he had social and business associations that pose a threat to the integrity of video gaming and discredit or tend to discredit the gaming industry of the state of Illinois,” IGB administrator Marcus Fruchter told Gaming Board members during the hearing. “Staff therefore recommends ordering Gold Rush to disassociate from Mr. Bolger.”
A similar statement was made regarding sales agent Daniel Gerardi, and the IGB voted unanimously that Gold Rush fire both Bolger and Gerardi. Gold Rush is currently in a 21-day period in which to address the charges, and both employees can remain with the company during the administrative hearing process.
Gold Rush defends Heidner, Bolger in statements
“The allegations are absolutely false, and Gold Rush and Rick Heidner will vigorously oppose the orchestrated smear campaign against them before the Gaming Board and in court,” Gold Rush said in a statement released Thursday, adding its formal response to the complaint would be filed within the allotted 21 days.
Specific to Bolger, Gold Rush released a separate statement that day saying, “Ron Bolger is well-respected in this industry after a 40-year career and he has been with Gold Rush since its formation. Today’s action was taken with no notice and Gold Rush is making an inquiry into the basis as the company has not yet received any explanation for the action.”
The main point of contention over the IGB’s proposed license revocation is how the agency and Gold Rush view a Nov. 30 meeting in which Heidner met with new Laredo owner Daniel Fischer and offered to bring together a group of owners to arrange a sale of Laredo for $5 mm more than Fischer had previously bought the company. According to the IGB’s complaint, obtained by the Chicago Tribune, that meeting came two weeks after Heidner was informed by a Laredo CEO that with the ownership change Laredo would sever its relationship with Gold Rush.
The complaint also states Heidner sent multiple texts to previous Laredo owner Gary Leff describing the offer.
“First thing I asked was if (Fischer) would sell and I could get a group together quickly and would get him $5,000,000.00 more than he paid please make $5 (mm), in a week,” the text read. “I told him none of my friends wanted to see this happen to me. He obviously said no…I told him I would help him so much I would help him expand so much.”
Gold Rush contends Heidner “would not have had any personal or financial interest in the proposed transaction.” Illinois state law prohibits businesses from both owning the gambling machine supplier and establishments where terminals are placed.
Gold Rush has video gambling terminals at approximately 450 locations throughout the state, and the capital expansion signed into law by Pritzker increased the maximum number of video gambling terminals (VGTs) at a location from five to six. It is uncertain if Gold Rush had the maximum 220 VGTs at the 44 locations in question across Northern Illinois.
Gold Rush claims at the time of the meeting with Fischer that Laredo “had already engaged in a sham transaction designed to induce an illegal inducement from Midwest SRO” and noted that Laredo and Illinois Cafe and Service Company — owned by Fischer — had filed suit against Gold Rush seeking a termination of the user agreement. The statement also notes that while Midway is not part of the suit, “it stands to benefit from the termination of the User Agreements.”
Gold Rush is pursuing discovery into those dealings and received a court order allowing it to depose Leff, Fischer, Midwest owner Allyson Estey, and then-Laredo CEO Charity Jones.
Heidner also part of Tinley Park racetrack controversy
Heidner was also part of a collaborative effort with Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey to open a racetrack and potential racino in the Village of Tinley Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago. In October, Pritzker’s administration opted not to sell state-owned land, a 280-acre tract where the Tinley Park Mental Health Center was, to the village in a step for the proposed $450 mm project after Heidner’s name was among 19 individuals in a federal search warrant related to the FBI’s search of the offices of State Senator Martin Sandoval in September.
At the time the Pritzker administration made the decision not to sell the land, Heidner had received approval by the Illinois Racing Board for the horse track portion of the plan but had not submitted an application to the IGB for a casino license. There was high anticipation for the plan, which would have resulted in Illinois’ first new horse racetrack in 75 years.
Heidner has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the Sandoval investigation, but a second subpoena involving McCook village hall in October included a request to search for records related to Heidner and Gold Rush.
The decision by the Pritzker administration was reportedly influenced by a Chicago Tribune investigative report in October that revealed Heidner had real estate business relationships with Rocco Suspenzi, the chairman of the board at Parkway Bank and Trust, whose family was connected to mob figures in a failed casino bid in Rosemont in 2003 as well as Dominic Buttitta, who in 2012 pleaded guilty to running an illegal sports bookmaking operation out of a strip club he owned in South Elgin.
The Illinois Gaming Board granted Heidner his license to operate video gambling machines in 2012, and that license is up for renewal in February 2020. Just prior to obtaining the initial license, the Chicago Tribune reported Heidner amended his corporate filings to remove both Suspenzi and Buttitta’s names from the companies they operated together.
“Gold Rush has had a positive relationship with the Illinois Gaming Board and received its license in 2012 while providing full cooperation and transparency,” Heidner’s spokesman Randall Samborn said. “Gold Rush has been a good gaming citizen for the last eight years and hopes to continue to do so.”