Key NCGA GOPers get pockets lined as casino industry seeks to expand footprint in state

The GOP supermajority on Jones Street is dragging its feet on overriding gubernatorial vetoes of child protection legislation, but they are finding plenty of time to work in overdrive on behalf of their donors in the casino industry — who have BIG plans for North Carolina:

North Carolina lawmakers are considering a draft casino bill that would allow one business to develop three casinos statewide. But campaign contributions to lawmakers from executives of the Baltimore-based casino development firm, The Cordish Cos., have raised concerns about “pay-to-play” scenarios, whereby parties fund specific business activities.

“It could be the tip of the iceberg of the money that is falling into political campaigns and dark money operations that will be or have been funding General Assembly candidates and politicians,” said Bob Hall, the former executive director of Democracy NC. But “it’s not illegal,” he said.

Campaign committees of at least eight lawmakers received a total of $34,400 from at least four donors linked to The Cordish Cos. from November 2022 to March 2023, according to the disclosures filed with the N.C. State Board of Elections and the Federal Election Commission. Campaign finance analysts and other critics have questioned whether the donations could give The Cordish Cos. an unfair advantage in developing the casinos.

But receiving campaign contributions from out-of-state donors with economic interests in potential legislation is not illegal, and candidates can accept up to $6,400 per election from each donor in contributions. The limit was $5,600 when donations were made in 2022.

Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, argued that the campaign contributions may not necessarily provide the company with an unfair advantage.

House Speaker Tim Moore said the casinos would be in Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties, according to WRAL. The exact locations are not publicly available yet. Senate leader Phil Berger, who represents Rockingham County, received $5,600 in November 2022 from Joseph Weinberg, CEO of Cordish Gaming Group and Cordish Global Cities Entertainment.

NC Development Holdings, which WRAL reported is connected to The Cordish Cos., requested a rezoning of almost 200 acres in Rockingham County in June. If the request is approved, the area would be open to a variety of commercial uses.

WRAL’s reporting found NC Development Holdings’ principal office had the same address as Cordish Cos. CPP used the N.C. State Board of Elections database and the Federal Election Commission database to track donations made to political candidates. CPP identified at least seven other North Carolina lawmakers who received campaign contributions from executives or individuals linked to The Cordish Cos. dating to November 2022.

Jon Cordish, principal and director of finance at The Cordish Cos., Chief Operating Officer Zed Smith and Rhonda Smith, a homemaker who has the same listed address as Zed Smith, also made donations.

Weinberg also gave $5,600 each to Sen. Lisa Barnes, R-Franklin/Nash/Vance, Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, and Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln.

Smith gave $2,500 to Sen. David Craven, R-Anson/Montgomery/Randolph/Richmond/Union and Rep. Kyle Hall, R-Forsyth/Stokes.

A donor named “Zeb Smith” gave $2,500 to Rep. Larry Strickland, R-Johnston with the same listed address as Zed Smith. CPP could not independently confirm if this was a typo or a new individual.

Rhonda Smith gave $2,500 to Sen. Todd Johnson, R-Union/Cabarrus. […]

North Carolina lawmakers are considering proposing four new casinos and video gambling machines in the state. This debate is taking place at a time when the General Assembly is still negotiating on a state budget, more than three weeks into the new fiscal year.

The casinos are likely to be built in Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties, with a fourth casino in Eastern North Carolina to be run by the Lumbee Tribe, Moore said to WRAL News.[…]

It’s “funny.”  All of these years the Lumbees have been fighting for federal recognition, they’ve SWORN there was no interest in casinos.  NONE.

Two things casinos bring with them?  Unions and organized crime.  Ask Vegas and Atlantic City about that. Both of those places are eaten up with problems stemming from BOTH of those entities.


[…] The casinos will be a part of entertainment districts, Berger said to WRAL, and require a $1.5 billion investment, according to a draft of the proposed legislation obtained by WRAL.

Berger also said to WRAL that the concept for the casinos is to be part of larger entertainment districts with hotel, residential, commercial, and office-industrial elements. The development of these entertainment centers would create more jobs locally, he said.

CPP reached out to Berger for comment but did not receive a response.

The bill’s language hasn’t been introduced in the General Assembly yet, so House lawmakers haven’t seen the final proposal.

Qualifying counties, according to the draft bill, would have a population below 100,000 and would fall under one of the 40 most economically depressed counties.

“They see it as a way to really spur the economy of the region,” Moore said to WRAL, referring to House lawmakers.[…]

“They”?  You mean the folks in your chamber who we were told — two paragraphs earlier – haven’t seen the “final proposal”?


[…] Professor Cooper said the reason for this policy being proposed now has to do with neighboring states.

“People who are gambling are going to do so in Virginia anyway, so why not bring those economic benefits to North Carolina? That’s their pitch,” he said. “Timing is important in public policy, and it’s about getting people to care about the issue.”

The locations that have been proposed will bring economic benefits to areas that are economically depressed, according to Cooper.

While casinos are seen as a solution to revive economically distressed areas, they can also have long-term consequences on rural communities and communities of color who reside in the areas where they are built, according to an academic study.

In fact, people who live near a casino are twice as likely to become gamblers than people who live more than 10 miles away, according to the Institute for American Values. Several studies that were reviewed by the Institute for American Values showed that between 40% and 60% of casino revenue came from problem gamblers. As a result, local economies may become weaker as local residents turn to gambling.[…]

How much economic growth occurs when Mom and Dad are gambling away the mortgage or rent money?  The grocery or baby food money?  I saw the disaster first-hand more than twenty-five years ago in southeastern North Carolina when the video poker craze was going full-steam.  Just like with the lottery, the people who can least afford to gamble are the ones investing the most into particular gambling scenarios. 


[…] Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper legalized online sports betting in the state starting next year. North Carolina  lawmakers are also considering legalizing video gambling, as legislators have long tried to regulate the state’s illegal video gambling industry.

So far, the draft bill does not warrant a referendum in the counties or communities where the casinos are being proposed. But locals will have a say, Berger said, and can vote through a governing body that may include county commissioners. Some anti-gambling groups in the state recently sent out digital ads to mailers and put up online ads that say, “North Carolina is no Las Vegas.”

“In Rockingham County, one of Sen. Phil Berger’s sons sits on the County Commission, and we know that politicians try to bring the bacon home to their district,” Cooper, the professor, said. Kevin Berger serves as a commissioner on the Rockingham County Board of County Commissioners and has expressed support for a casino in the county for years.

Starting Sept. 1, the secretary of administration will begin accepting proposals over a 60-day period from companies with 10 years of experience in the commercial gaming industry that can invest $1.5 billion or $500 million at each location and add 5,250 jobs. The secretary of administration will recommend a company to the secretary of commerce.

There are two casinos currently operating in North Carolina on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians land in Western North Carolina and another on Catawba Nation land off Interstate 85, near the South Carolina border.

Greater Carolina, described on its website as a group of “forward-thinking, pro-free market conservative leaders” in North Carolina, commissioned Spectrum Gaming Group to study potential gambling revenue. The nonpartisan consultancy found that the three proposed casinos could make $1.5 billion in gross gaming revenue three years after their launch.

The draft bill also outlines fines if the company doesn’t meet the investment or job requirements. […]

These hare-brained “economic development” schemes almost never meet or exceed the anticipated investment or job requirements.  Are we to believe the state will have these casinos pull up stakes and MOVE when they fail to deliver on those expectations?


[…] While it doesn’t include video gaming terminals or video lottery terminals, the legalization of slot-machine games is also under debate as part of this proposal, according to Moore.

A closer look at business influence in NC lawmaking

While campaign contributions to North Carolina lawmakers from individuals involved with The Cordish Cos. are not illegal, they do raise questions about how much influence business interests wield, experts and analysts say.

“It’s a pay-to-play scheme, and the system itself is corrupt,” said Hall.

They put a lot of money behind their requests to get attention and overcome the hesitation of legislators,” he said, referring to businesses and companies who make campaign contributions. “That corrupting dynamic leads the leadership into compromising and bringing proposals to the members of their caucus.”

Hall filed a complaint in May with the N.C. State Board of Elections alleging campaign finance malfeasance by the video poker industry. In his complaint, he requested the Board of Elections investigate $885,000 in contributions from the video poker industry to candidates and party committees from 2019-22.

He said North Carolina has a history of the gambling industry putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into political donations.

“Whether it’s Republican leader Phil Berger now or Democratic leaderJim Black 20 years ago, they’re urgently looking for a huge amount of private money to finance their members’ reelection,” Hall, the former director of Democracy NC, said.The video poker and gambling industry is literally a cash cow—with plenty of cash to throw into politics and push its schemes forward, even when they are dangerous to the common good and public interest.”

Professor Cooper believes that the campaign contributions don’t unfairly benefit The Cordish Cos. or individual companies.

“It’s hard to show true pay-to-play because organizations that donate money give it to the people who are likely to support them,” Professor Cooper said. “I think the campaign contributions are strategic investments in getting access to and helping to set the agenda for legislators.”[…]

The Cordish Cos. also hired several lobbyists in the General Assembly: Zachary Dean Almond, Tony Copeland, James A. Harrell III, Tracy W. Kimbrell and Drew Moretz. None of them responded for comment immediately.

Copeland is Gov. Cooper’s former secretary of commerce, and Kimbrell was Berger’s general counsel at the statehouse a decade ago.

The company also opened a PBR Cowboy Bar location in Cary. PBR Cowboy Bar is under The Cordish Cos.’ Live! unit.

CPP did not receive immediate comment from Sen. Berger R-Rockingham, Barnes,   Craven,  Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, Rep. Larry Strickland, R-Johnston, Sen. Johnson, R-Union/Cabarrus, or Rep. Kyle Hall, R-Forsyth/Stokes.

Saine’s office said he would not be interested in commenting on the $5,600 contribution he received from Weinberg in November 2022.[…]

Legislators will continue to negotiate about the draft casino bill while trying to finalize the budget. The budget may not be finalized until mid-August.[…]