Joliet city officials get the VIP treatment at Harrah’s
By Andrew Schroedter Better Government Association April 5, 2013 1:44PM
Harrah's Casino at 151 North Joliet Street in Joliet, IL on Thursday January 10, 2013. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 5, 2013 10:05PM
Joliet’s top officials don’t have to be high rollers to get VIP treatment at Harrah’s Joliet Casino & Hotel.
The casino issues the mayor, city manager and city council members a “Diamond Card,” essentially a VIP pass that saves them money at Harrah’s restaurants and gift shops and lets them access an exclusive lounge with free food and non-alcoholic beverages, the Better Government Association has found.
Most of the officials say they have taken advantage of the perk.
Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante and City Manager Tom Thanas told the BGA they’ve visited the casino’s Diamond Lounge, off- limits to everyone but VIPs, while five of the eight council members say they’ve used the card at some point, either to enter the lounge or to pay less for a meal at a restaurant.
The card isn’t widely distributed. Most regular gamblers would have to wager thousands of dollars to get one — but for Joliet officials it’s free.
“It’s a gesture of goodwill,” says Thanas. “It’s sort of like a restaurant buying a cup of coffee for a council member.”
But whereas a cup of coffee costs a buck or two, you can’t get a Diamond Card with the loose change in your pocket.
Most people have to accumulate 15,000 “tier credits” to obtain one.
That can be done a number of ways, most of which involve spending money at one of nearly 40 U.S. casinos and resorts owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp, the Las Vegas-based parent company of Harrah’s Joliet. (It’s located on the Des Plaines River in Joliet’s downtown.)
A gambler who plays slots, for example, would have to wager up to $75,000 to amass 15,000 “tier credits,” at a rate of one credit per $5.
Harrah’s isn’t breaking any rules by giving away the Diamond Card, although no other casino throughout the state is handing out VIP passes to local officials, says Gene O’Shea, a spokesman for the Illinois Gaming Board, the government agency regulating the state’s 10 casinos.
“While we don’t agree with this business practice, there’s nothing about it that violates the [state’s Riverboat Gambling Act], the rules or internal controls,” he says.
But it is a potential conflict of interest for elected officials to receive anything of value from a business or person they regulate. The city issues Harrah’s a liquor license (for the non-gaming floor parts of the casino property) and would have final say over any zoning or redevelopment matters. The city also provides fire and police services as needed.
What’s more, Giarrante appeared before the gaming board in August 2011 to speak in support of renewing Harrah’s gaming license.
Joliet has an ethics ordinance that prohibits municipal officials and employees from accepting gifts from a person or entity they regulate. The VIP player cards potentially violate the ban, though there are numerous exceptions such as items valued at less than $100 in a calendar year. City Clerk Christa Desiderio, Joliet’s ethics officer, declined to comment, though Jeffrey Plyman, the city’s corporation counsel, said he would look into the matter.
However, David Kaptain, mayor of Elgin, home to the Grand Victoria Casino, said accepting something from local casinos is “not a good idea.”
“If we took something from somebody, we can’t vote on” matters involving them, Kaptain said.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9035.