Controversial Chicago Racino Bid Canceled

A gambling entrepreneur’s efforts to buy state land to build a racetrack and casino were shot down this week by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration. The rejection comes after a recent report revealed that the attempted buyer’s business was named in relation to an ongoing FBI organized crime investigation.

Rick Heidner.

Rick Heidner speaks to the Illinois Racing Board in the lead up to his Racino license approval ©Chicago Tribune

Rick Heidner, a video gambling company owner, was looking to purchase the Tinley Park Mental Health Center in order to redevelop the land into a new gambling enterprise with Hawthorne Racecourse general manager Tim Carey.

Last week, news came out that FBI agents were specifically looking for materials related to Heidner and his Gold Rush Gaming whilst searching the office of Democratic state Senator Martin Sandoval. While Heidner hasn’t been accused of any crimes, he was also mentioned in the search warrant of McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski’s office.

The damaging report also linked Heidner to a banking family whose previous connections to organized crime groups resulted in the cessation of the town of Rosemont, Illinois’ bid for a casino in 2001. But despite the link, Heidner has attested that he has taken part in no wrongdoing.

Addressing the Illinois Racing Board this Tuesday, Heidner promised that he was “not a mob affiliate,” and also described his past charitable and community service efforts. While Heidner and Carey had already received the Racing Board’s approval for the racino, the denial of the Tinley Park site has stalled progress on his plans.

Despite this, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration has outlined the importance of ensuring there are no misdealings within the gaming industry. “Corruption and self-dealing will not be tolerated,” said Pritzker’s spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh. “And our administration is currently reviewing all procurement and contracting processes to ensure they are rigorous, transparent and fair.”

Rick Heidner and the Tinley Park Project

Rick Heidner’s status has grown in Illinois since the launch of his Gold Rush Gaming in 2012. In only seven years, the company is now the third-largest video gambling operator in Illinois and provides thousands of slot machines across the state. It was also named in the Martin Sandoval warrant.

Along with Gold Rush Gaming, Heidner also runs a suburban real estate development company. While he was initially planning on purchasing the Tinley Park land to develop a senior living complex, his plans changed when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a gambling expansion bill into law earlier this year.

The new law inspired Heidner to partner with Hawthorne Race Course general manager Tim Carey in a racino development. While their license was approved by the Racing Board, they still needed approval by the state Gaming Board before they could operate slots and table games at the sight. After the recent developments, Gaming Board approval is likely to be delayed.

The cancellation of the project has sent shockwaves throughout the racing industry. The $450 million development plan would see the 120-acre Tinley Park fitted with a 4,000-seat grandstand, a hotel, sportsbook, an upscale restaurant, and a concert festival camping ground.

The plans were seen to be a shot in the arm for Illinois’ struggling horse racing industry. Tinley Park would have been the first new track to be built in the state in almost 75 years and according to Tim Carey, the construction of the complex would have been beneficial to the community.

“The Legislature included the opportunity to develop a new racino as part of Illinois’ gaming expansion because such a facility is vital to the survival of the racing industry and the thousands of jobs that it supports. We are going to work with all industry stakeholders, elected officials and regulators to determine new options to bring this to fruition.”Tim Carey, General Manager, Hawthorne Racetrack

When questioned about why he was named in the Sandoval warrant, Heidner stated that it could have something to do with a number of political donations he made to Sandoval’s campaigns. Over the last twenty years, Heidner has made over $715,000 in political donations, with Sandoval receiving $11,500 since 2015.

The Investigation

An FBI agent leaves Martin Sandoval’s office with bag marked evidence.

An FBI agent leaves the office of Sen. Martin Sandoval with a bag marked ‘evidence’ ©The Southern

The details surrounding the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into Sen. Martin Sandoval remain unclear. What is known is that as the week’s progress, more and more local and federal politicians, business groups and individuals are being questioned and searched.

Two days after the offices and residence of Martin Sandoval were raided on September 24, federal investigators also investigated the homes of Lyons Mayor Christopher Getty and McCook Mayor Jeffrey Tobolski.

A number of other political figures were also investigated. These include Bill Helm, a former official at the Chicago Department of Aviation, John Harris, the chief of staff of the former state Governor, and a politically connected red-light camera company called SafeSpeed.

And it isn’t just Rick Heidner whose business dealings have been tainted by the investigation. The inter-state utility company Exelon has been questioned for its lobbying activities relating to Martin Sandoval. In light of the inquiries, CEO Anne Pramaggiore abruptly announced her retirement.

More news is to come about the cause of the investigation, but commentators believe it could have huge ramifications for Illinois’ political sphere.

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