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Former minister: gaming body structure ‘made sense at the time’

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Plans for the island’s first casino at the Hamilton Princess fell through (File photograph)

A former tourism minister who oversaw major changes to the Bermuda Gaming Commission has suggested that the Cabinet may need to look again at the way it is structured.

The comments from the Progressive Labour Party MP Jamahl Simmons come after senior banking and hotel industry insiders repeatedly told The Royal Gazette that the Government is seen as having too much power over the commission.

The perceived level of government influence over the commission has been a “red flag” to US financial organisations needed as correspondent banks for the gaming industry on the island, according to sources.

Mr Simmons was tourism minister in 2017 when the BGC was overhauled with new rules allowing the Government to fire commissioners.

The body was also made to take direction from the Government as part of the changes.

The PLP MP told The Royal Gazette: “It was a Cabinet decision and it made sense at that time.

“Whether it still makes sense is a matter for the present Cabinet using the information that they possess and have access to.”

The remarks came as a senior banking insider said that the commission needed a major shake-up if the island wanted to create a viable casino industry.

The Government should be much more proactive and talk to US regulators and American banks as well as Bermudian ones to salvage the push to establish the island’s first casino after plans for a gambling hub at the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club collapsed, the source said.

The creation of a casino industry has been highlighted by David Burt as one of the Government’s four key drivers of economic growth in the near future.

The Premier and Vance Campbell, the tourism minister, met executives operating the St Regis resort in recent days regarding the hotel’s plans for a casino.

Craig Cannonier, the One Bermuda Alliance shadow tourism minister, dismissed the meeting as a stunt as he insisted that Mr Burt needed to remove himself from the casino process.

BGC independence ‘undermined’

The Casino Gaming Amendment Act 2017 provoked the then chairman of the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission, Alan Dunch, to resign in protest.

He said at the time that the changes “completely undermined” the organisation as a “wholly autonomous, independent regulatory body which would operate free from political interference and government dictate”.

He said that the obligation for the commission to follow general directions from ministers was a “potentially sad and seriously backward misstep in the ongoing efforts of Bermuda to introduce a gaming regime that will be recognised and perceived both locally and in the international gaming community as one that has integrity, independence and an unfettered ability to minimise, if not eliminate entirely, in fact and in appearance the possibility of corruption.”

He added: “The result may well be to impede Bermuda's ability to attract first-class people of the utmost integrity to both operate and regulate the gaming industry here.”

The senior banking source said: “We have made things way too complicated in Bermuda. It’s about risk appetite for banks.

“The concerns here are also the lack of independence for the regulator; that is a big issue here.

“Places as small as the Isle of Man, similar population to Bermuda, has an independent regulator; it’s got a gaming board which appoints and replaces itself. In an absolute crisis, the Government will step in and take over the regulator, but there is no reporting to government — it’s an independent statutory board.

“You need to take the perceived political influence out of it.

“The gaming commission here, from a governance perspective, has just been set up wrong, but it’s not hard to fix.

“Bermuda just needs to get its act together.

“Put a couple of former bankers on the board, put international regulators on the board — that’s an easy one.

“The Bermuda Monetary Authority is a very good, independent model. I don’t think a minister can just call up the BMA and change the banking regulations with a phone call.

“Changing the structure of the gaming commission would be the first thing to do.

“The other big thing is around transaction monitoring, knowing where the money is coming from.”

“The Government needs to go to the stakeholders, the banks, the correspondent banks, the US regulators and sit them down and say, ‘We are not trying to open a casino to try and encourage money launderers to come here and push money through’.”

Owners of the St Regis Hotel and a representative of their proposed casino operator met David Burt, the Premier, and Vance Campbell, the Minister of Tourism (Photograph supplied)

Mr Cannonier told The Royal Gazette: “The Premier’s meeting was just an empty photo op.

“The issues that were there when the St Regis was given the casino licence in October are still there.

“It was just lip service.

“The Premier knows he has to remove himself from the process. But, instead, he sets up a photo opportunity. What message does that send?

“To go on about media speculation is just reckless of the Premier. The issue of gaming has fallen under the Premier and he is one of the stumbling blocks for the industry.

“Where is the casino? It is perfectly correct for hoteliers to express their disappointment at the lack of progress in the media. That is their right.

“We are paying these salaries for the BGC — we need to move with some urgency now.”

Century Casinos backed out of an eight-year involvement in trying to set up the island’s first casino at the Hamilton Princess this month.

Alan Dunch quit as chairman of the then Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission in 2017 in protest at legislation that gave the Government powers to direct the body and dismiss commissioners.

Referring to the St Regis meeting, a government spokeswoman said: “The ministers meet with community stakeholders all the time.

“This was a meeting between a hotelier and a proposed casino operator at their request.

“The matter of a casino was one of the issues discussed.

“This was not a meeting between or with the regulator and the operator. That meeting took place earlier in the day.”

Asked about the Premier’s involvement at the St Regis meeting, the spokeswoman said: “It would irresponsible for a minister not to meet with a key community partner.”

Charmaine Smith, the BGC chief executive, has repeatedly refused to answer specific questions on the casino situation.

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Published January 31, 2023 at 7:49 am (Updated January 31, 2023 at 9:58 am)

Former minister: gaming body structure ‘made sense at the time’

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