Longtime Indiana casino exec selling out after allegations

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A longtime heavyweight in Indiana’s gambling industry is selling his stake in a Gary casino project and permanently giving up his state casino license after allegations of financial wrongdoings by him and a business partner.

The deal announced Tuesday between former Spectacle Entertainment CEO Rod Ratcliff and the Indiana Gaming Commission comes after he had filed a lawsuit last month against the agency’s order that he give up his ownership stake in the existing Lake Michigan casino in Gary and a new $300 million casino being built to replace it at a more lucrative inland Gary location.

The dispute over Ratcliff’s ownership role had threatened the opening of the new Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana this spring, but the commission’s director said its staff would work toward “an expeditious opening” for the new casino.

State casino officials began investigating Spectacle and Ratcliff in January 2020 after federal allegations emerged that a longtime Ratcliff business partner, former Spectacle vice president John Keeler, illegally funneled casino company money to a former state lawmaker’s unsuccessful 2016 Republican congressional campaign.

The state gaming commission has said Ratcliff was involved in that scheme, citing an email from a Ratcliff employee and his electronic calendar about an April 2015 meeting at Indianapolis International Airport with a Virginia political consultant who was sentenced last year on federal fraud charges.

State officials have also alleged that Ratcliff continued exerting control over Spectacle in violation of state orders, wrongly funneled nearly $1 million in casino company money into his own horse race wagering account and made improper job offers to government lobbyists.

A spokesman for Ratcliff said the agreement benefits all sides and stop the “unfair persecution of Rod Ratcliff.”

“With this settlement agreement, Rod achieves what he wanted from the very beginning of this ordeal — to retire from Indiana gaming on his own terms,” spokesman Robert Vane said in a statement. “Mr. Ratcliff’s career in Indiana has resulted in the creation of thousands of jobs for Hoosiers, millions of dollars of economic activity, and significant charitable investment in local communities.”

Ratcliff has denied wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged by federal authorities in the campaign financing case.

Terms of Ratcliff’s ownership stake sale were not released. His shares are being bought by Hard Rock International and Spectacle Entertainment partner Greg Gibson, who took over ownership last year of the new casino being built in Terre Haute from Spectacle because of the federal criminal investigation.

The state gaming commission’s board is expected to review Ratcliff’s agreement and plans for operating the new Gary casino during its March 23 meeting.

Hard Rock International said in a statement that it was excited to conclude the ownership dispute and looks forward to bringing “this amazing project to fruition in the next few months.”

Ratcliff and Keeler, a lawyer who was a Republican state legislator for 16 years in the 1980s and 90s, have lobbied the Indiana Legislature for many years on casino matters. They pushed lawmakers in 2019 to allow the Gary casino’s move and construction of the new casino in Terre Haute.

In 2019, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb faced a state ethics review of his dealings with Ratcliff.

Ratcliff and Keeler were leaders of the former Centaur Gaming and among those who formed Spectacle after selling Centaur’s horse track casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville to Caesars Entertainment Corp. in 2018 for $1.7 billion.

Centaur was a key lobbying force behind the Legislature’s decision that allowed both horse tracks to open the first Indianapolis-area casinos in 2008.