Pols shunning real estate donations welcome casino giant’s cash

Three licenses for gambling houses in the five boroughs are up for grabs

Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Queens Sen. Michael Gianaris (Credit: Getty Images, iStock)
Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Queens Sen. Michael Gianaris (Credit: Getty Images, iStock)

A quiet push for casinos in New York City is intensifying ahead of a highly anticipated gambling-market report and a deadline to close a yawning state budget deficit.

The state has a casino-license moratorium — imposed to give four upstate casinos time to build customer bases without downstate competition — in effect until 2023. But casino operators want New York lawmakers to reconsider waiting that long. At least one, Genting, has been filling the campaign coffers of elected officials who could be helpful on that issue.

Another motivation for lawmakers is the $500 million ante that licensees must pay — money that would help Albany close the $6.1 billion deficit by the traditional April 1 deadline. A casino market study ordered by the state’s Gaming Commission, with an emphasis on downstate, is due that same day.

Genting, a major casino developer based in Malaysia, operates Resorts World at Aqueduct Racetrack in Jamaica. The venue can have electronic gambling devices but not human dealers or slot machines with arms. Winning a license would allow the Queens cash cow to become a full-fledged gambling house with table games — and go after high rollers, who typically want to do more than push buttons.

A political action committee solely funded by Genting has donated $90,000 to a handful of Democratic state politicians. GAI PAC gave $4,500 each to Queens Assembly member Aravella Simotas and Brooklyn Assembly member Joe Lentol; $7,500 to Queens Sen. Michael Gianaris, and $50,000 to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Several other politicians also received donations from Genting’s PAC.

Simotas, who represents Astoria, is opposed in June’s Democratic primary by a challenger backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, which helped Queens Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Brooklyn Sen. Julia Salazar oust longtime incumbents in 2018. Lentol, who co-chairs the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, has a primary opponent for the first time in a decade. Gianaris faces an insurgent as well.

Gianaris, Lentol and Simotas have all pledged to not take donations from real estate developers, but Lentol and Simotas said they see no problem with casino operators.

“New York City is facing a significant budget deficit, and tax revenues from gaming will be used to ensure that our schools are not underfunded,” said Simotas.

A spokesperson for Lentol said casino developers are “viewed differently than a real estate developer.” Gianaris declined to comment.

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Indeed, Resorts World often promotes the school aid it furnishes as part of its agreement with the state. The venue contributed more than $316 million to education in 2019.

Genting is also paying Patrick Jenkins — a former college roommate of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — $30,000 a month to lobby on its behalf.

Asked to comment on its activities, a spokesperson for Genting said, “As the largest taxpayer in New York State, Genting, like many others in the gaming and hospitality industries, is an active participant in the policy debate.”

Heastie’s predecessor as Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, was never a fan of gambling, but ultimately agreed to the deal that yielded the Aqueduct “racino,” which has been lucrative, and the upstate casinos, which have struggled.

Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, which represents many of the city’s largest businesses, said issuing additional licenses could help shore up the state’s budget gap.

“If [casinos] are making a substantial contribution in terms of taxes and jobs to the state, it’s hard to turn down,” Wylde said.

At least one real estate developer is already preparing for the competitive bidding process for the remaining licenses.

Scott Rechler’s RXR Realty was engaged by Las Vegas Sands, which is owned by Sheldon Adelson, to evaluate sites for a casino in the five boroughs, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

To win a casino license, identifying a feasible location is crucial. David Paterson, a former New York governor hired by Las Vegas Sands as a lobbyist, said many sites have been proposed in discussions with developers — including Willets Point, Queens, where a possible rezoning awaits approval.

“Every area that looks like it’s two-square blocks has been bandied about as a possible destination,” Paterson said, explaining that a site will be agreed upon only after the licenses are granted. “Every time I hear a conversation, I hear about a site.”