UPDATE: No more VIP treatment at Harrah’s for Joliet officials

Joliet’s top officials don’t have to be high rollers to get VIP treatment at Harrah’s Joliet Casino & Hotel.

The casino issues the mayor, city manager and city council members a “Diamond Card,” essentially a VIP pass that saves them money at Harrah’s restaurants and gift shops and lets them access an exclusive lounge with free food and non-alcoholic beverages, the Better Government Association has found.

Most of the officials say they have taken advantage of the perk, which critics contend is a conflict of interest because those officials also exercise some regulatory authority over Harrah’s.

Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante and City Manager Tom Thanas told the BGA they’ve visited the casino’s Diamond Lounge, off-limits to everyone but VIPs, while five of the eight council members say they’ve used the card at some point, either to enter the lounge or to pay less for a meal at a restaurant.

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The card isn’t widely distributed. Most regular gamblers would have to wager thousands of dollars to get one – but for Joliet officials it’s free.

“It’s a gesture of goodwill,” says Thanas. “It’s sort of like a restaurant buying a cup of coffee for a council member.”

But whereas a cup of coffee costs a buck or two, you can’t get a Diamond Card with the loose change in your pocket.

Most people have to accumulate 15,000 “tier credits” to obtain one.

That can be done a number of ways, most of which involve spending money at one of nearly 40 U.S. casinos and resorts owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp, the Las Vegas-based parent company of Harrah’s Joliet. (It’s located on the Des Plaines River in Joliet’s downtown.)

A gambler who plays slots, for example, would have to wager up to $75,000 to amass 15,000 “tier credits,” at a rate of one credit per $5.

Harrah’s isn’t breaking any rules by giving away the Diamond Card, although no other casino throughout the state is handing out VIP passes to local officials, says Gene O’Shea, a spokesman for the Illinois Gaming Board, the government agency regulating the state’s 10 casinos.

“While we don’t agree with this business practice, there’s nothing about it that violates the [state’s Riverboat Gambling Act], the rules or internal controls,” he says.

But it is a potential conflict of interest for elected officials to receive anything of value from a business or person they regulate. The city issues Harrah’s a liquor license (for the non-gaming floor parts of the casino property) and would have final say over any zoning or redevelopment matters. The city also provides fire and police services as needed.

What’s more, Giarrante appeared before the gaming board in August 2011 to speak in support of renewing Harrah’s gaming license.

Joliet has an ethics ordinance that prohibits municipal officials and employees from accepting gifts from a person or entity they regulate. The VIP player cards potentially violate the ban, though there are numerous exceptions such as items valued at less than $100 in a calendar year. City Clerk Christa Desiderio, Joliet’s ethics officer, declined to comment, though Jeffrey Plyman, the city’s corporation counsel, said he would look into the matter.

“I don’t know what’s actually occurring,” he says. “This is the first I’m hearing of it.”

Either way, Giarrante isn’t the first elected official to vouch for one of the state’s casinos, a major source of tax revenue for the host towns. Giarrante says his support has nothing to do with the favorable treatment he’s received at Harrah’s.

David Kaptain, mayor of Elgin, home to the Grand Victoria Casino, said accepting something from local casinos is “not a good idea.”

Get a glimpse of the Diamond Lounge in Harrah’s Joliet Casino & Hotel

“If we took something from somebody, we can’t vote on” matters involving them, Kaptain said.

But Giarrante and other Joliet officials say they don’t consider it a conflict nor do they believe it impacts their ability to make impartial decisions, either now or in the future.

“If it was a conflict, I wouldn’t be remotely associated with it,” Joliet Councilman Mike Turk says.

Giarrante, a former Joliet firefighter, is paid $40,000 a year as mayor, while Joliet council members make $18,000 to $20,000. Those city officials also receive health insurance and can collect a public-sector pension down the road if certain criteria are met, according to interviews and public records.

Darren VanDover, the Harrah’s general manager, told the BGA that giving Diamond Cards to top Joliet officials is a practice that began when the casino opened in 1993.

“All council members, the mayor and village manager have one,” VanDover says.

He says most Joliet officials use the card to visit the Diamond Lounge, a private area within the casino with free food, coffee, bottled water and soda, and alcohol available for purchase. The lounge can’t be accessed without a Diamond Card, or another VIP pass.

Only two council members, John Gerl and Larry Hug, told the BGA they’ve never visited Harrah’s. Gerl even says he can’t recall having received a card.

Councilman Don Fisher didn’t return numerous calls from the BGA. The other five council members told the BGA they have used the card at some point.

In an interesting twist, Thanas recently mailed his Diamond Card back to the casino – he made the decision after the BGA started asking questions, he says.

“There’s no conflict of interest,” he says. “But my personal preference is not to be part of stories like this.”

Thanas predicts Harrah’s may soon stop handing out the cards to avoid any negative publicity, and a Harrah’s spokesman confirms that’s a possibility.

“It should go away,” Hug says. “You should get rid of anything that gives the appearance of impropriety.”

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.