Law dictates agency’s close ties to tracks

Did abuse charges fall on deaf ears?

The New Hampshire Pari-Mutuel Commission, after accepting the surrender on May 3 of scandal-ridden Lakes Region Greyhound Park’s license, congratulated itself on handling a difficult issue, one that involved the federal indictment of track officials tying them to a mob-linked gambling conspiracy, revelations of track officials’ previous gambling convictions, a state attorney general’s investigation of the track and litigation among the track owners over the sale of the track.

“This shows,” said Commissioner Michael Gatsas, “that the commission is experienced enough to handle the enforcement of any gaming operation.”

After most of the reporters and lawyers left, and the Pari-Mutuel Commission continued their regular meeting in the spacious hall of the Public Utilities Commission hearing room, Hinsdale Greyhound Park owner Joe Sullivan joked to the commissioners that he wished they had the PUC’s more sweeping regulatory powers — “to keep us out of the Legislature when it came to things like slot machines” at the tracks.

“Wish we could,” agreed commission Chairman Timothy “Ted” Connors, prompting general laughter.

If critics were on hand, they might have cited the exchange as one more example of the commission’s coziness with track owners. After all, the commission is supposed to be regulating the industry, not representing it, right?

Actually, that’s not quite right. By state law, all six members of the Pari-Mutuel Commission are supposed to either represent the dog or horse racing industry (three from each industry), making the body – at least by statute – the most industry-linked regulatory body in the state.

While most other state boards and commissions have members who are representatives of the industries and professions they regulate, none by law is supposed to consist entirely of people representing industry interests.

Indeed, a survey of laws creating some 70 state boards and commissions reveal that only about a third of their total 550 members represent the regulated industry or profession. The other two-thirds consist of state officials or those representing consumers or the general public, or members with no designation at all, like the PUC.

In actuality, for better or worse, the governor and the Executive Council have ignored this law when it comes to the Pari-Mutuel Commission.

Only one commissioner — Gatsas, whose company actually sells and races thoroughbred horses – directly represents the industry, even though there is no thoroughbred racing in the state anymore. And Gatsas, who was appointed in February 2004, is the commission’s second junior member.

‘Not affiliated’

The reasoning behind the law, said Chairman Connors, dates back to the early 1980s, when the state’s previous two racing commissions were combined. In order to make sure that one industry didn’t dominate the other, each was granted half of the membership on the merged commission. No one ever thought that the commission should be made up of anything other than people representing the industry, Connors said.

“It never came up,” he said, but no one ever really paid attention to the law either.

For instance, Connors — who has been on the commission for some 37 years, and is listed as representing the harness and thoroughbred industry — said he was “not affiliated with any industry. I’m not a big patron of the track.”

Indeed, Connors’ area of expertise is low-income housing — he was longtime executive director of the Portsmouth Housing Authority, a position he retired from in the fall of 2003.

Warren Leary Jr. of Alton supposedly represents the greyhound industry, but his only connection is that his family crest from England has a greyhound in it, he said.

The other supposed representative of the greyhound industry, Lynn Presby — a former director of the State Police from Freedom — has no apparent ties to the industry. (Presby did not return repeated phone calls on the matter.)

Presby is an owner of the Mount Washington Hotel – an oft-mentioned candidate for slot machines should they ever be permitted by the state Legislature. The Pari-Mutuel Commission backs the machines in theory, and would regulate them at the tracks it oversees as well as at any other sites where they might be allowed, according to most legislative proposals.

Presby has never abstained from such votes and discussions, said Paul Kelley, executive director of the commission, adding that he didn’t have to because his interests in the hotel are well known.

The other two board members aren’t even listed as representing the industry. They are Anthony Urban of Berlin, director of the Division of Plant and Property Management in the state Department of Administrative Services, and Robert S. Fennerty of Bow, a former bank director.

Still, most board members did not have a problem identifying with an industry whose interests coincide with the state, since it raises revenues for state coffers.

“We represent the industry because we know our stuff,” said Leary. “I represent the state to make sure the industry is run correctly.”

“I represent both the industry and the people of New Hampshire,” Gatsas said.

Gatsas was speaking about the industry in general and not his own company, Gatsas Thoroughbred, or its spin-off, Sovereign Stable.

‘No benefit’

Gatsas, along with his brother — N.H. Sen. Theodore Gatsas — started raising and training horses in 1997. At first, said Gatsas, they raced and stabled some of the horses at Rockingham Park, but by the time he became commissioner, all of his horses raced out of state, primarily in New York.

“There is no individual benefit I receive from people betting in New Hampshire,” he said.

Gatsas said he is extremely supportive of an industry “that is a tremendous sport that benefits the entire state.”

This feeling — that the interest of the industry coincides with the interest of the state — is reflected in the fact that both administrators of the commission worked in the racing industry for more than a decade.

Paul Kelley left his position as a lead-out at Seabrook Greyhound Park in 1987 to become executive director of the Pari-Mutuel Commission, where he remains. Kelley says that his former role in the industry is an advantage, adding that his fellow pari-mutuel administrators around the country voted in April to award him their organization’s annual Len Foote Award, for both his service to the pari-mutuel racing industry and his integrity.

Stephen Edwards worked at a dog track in Revere for a decade before becoming Kelley’s deputy in 1999. Before that, he worked in numerous capacities at Seabrook from 1973 to 1989. Though most of the people he worked with at Seabrook are no longer there, the management remains the same. He also sees no problem in regulating his former boss.

Critics of the industry, however, said that a commission that was on top of the industry would not have been caught so off-guard by a federal investigation into an alleged illegal gambling scheme, and they would have known that several former track officials previously had criminal gambling records.

Whether or not the commission was supposed to represent the pari-mutuel industry or not, “they apparently have done so,” said Jim Rubens, chair of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling.

The Legislature, he said, “should assure an independent body regulate (the pari-mutuel industry) because self-regulation by the industry itself has not been successful.”

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