Prompted by questions from the Better Government Association, the Illinois Gaming Board has launched an investigation into Rivers Casino over its relationship with a Chicago company whose president has had ties to reputed mob figures.

Rivers, the state’s newest and most lucrative casino, has been using United Service Cos. for “deep cleaning” to its kitchens since the Des Plaines gaming site opened in 2011 after besting applicants from Waukegan and Rosemont for a coveted gaming license, the BGA found.

Rivers, owned by a venture whose chairman is billionaire real estate magnate Neil Bluhm, also hired United Service’s security division to provide guards just before the casino opened, according to interviews.

The president of United Service is Richard “Rick” Simon, a former Chicago police officer who over the years has had business and personal connections to reputed mob figures, according to public records, news accounts and interviews. Simon said in an interview he’s an upstanding businessman unfairly portrayed in past media reports.

According to gaming regulators, Illinois casinos are not supposed to have even a hint of organized crime ties – which dogged late Rosemont Mayor Donald E. Stephens as he unsuccessfully sought a casino for his tiny northwest suburb in the shadow of O’Hare Airport.

Concerns about organized crime influence also have surfaced in recent years over proposals to let the City of Chicago own and possibly regulate its own casino.

Political leaders are again talking of expanding gambling to stir up tax revenue and shore up government finances.

The Illinois Gaming Board – the state government agency that currently regulates video gaming and casinos across Illinois – can punish casinos for anything that “would discredit or tend to discredit the Illinois Gaming industry,” including “employing persons of notorious or unsavory reputation,” according to state rules. That provision can cover people with ties to reputed organized crime figures, said Mark Ostrowski, the gaming board’s administrator.

The gaming board is allowed to issue fines – even in the millions of dollars, as the agency once did for Grand Victoria in Elgin when that casino hired a ventilation contractor with alleged mob connections – and revoke a gaming license, taking away the ability of a casino to legally operate, Ostrowski said.

However, Ostrowski emphasized it’s too early to say what if anything will happen with Rivers, as his agency’s investigation has just started. The probe began after the BGA asked a Rivers representative about Simon, whereupon Rivers fired United Service and notified the gaming board of the situation, according to casino and gaming board officials.

“What we’re trying to determine [is] what’s the process [by which United Service was hired], how did it come about, who was involved in the decision making, who evaluated the proposals, what type of background investigation, if any, was done,” Ostrowski said. “This is very serious. But what I want to caution you on is we’re not trying to jump to any conclusion.”

Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Rivers, said the casino did conduct background checks on United Service and other vendors, enlisting a reputable company with former gaming investigators. No red flags were found – something Simon said supports his contention there’s nothing wrong with his business working at Illinois casinos.

Simon said he has no criminal record and is a decorated former cop active in philanthropies. He said he simply knows a lot of people and is absolutely not involved in organized crime. United Service and its affiliates provide janitorial, staffing, trade show and security services around the country.

While the gaming board vets the backgrounds of casino vendors directly related to gaming – for instance, suppliers of slot machines – the agency does not regularly scrutinize the more run-of-the-mill contractors, those providing, say, “cola” or “paint” or cleaning services, Ostrowski said.

The Chicago Sun-Times, however, has scrutinized Simon, reporting in 2012 that he partnered in another business – which handled heavy equipment at trade show venues – with William Daddano Jr. More than a decade ago the Illinois attorney general described Daddano and three other family members as “reputed members of organized crime.”

For many years Simon was also a close friend and employee of Ben Stein, according to police records, other documents and interviews. Stein’s business empire – involving janitorial work – is now co-owned and run by Simon under the United Service name. Stein, who died in 1996, was a convicted felon and associate of reputed mobsters, including Dominic Senese, a now-deceased Teamsters boss who was described in a 1978 White House report on organized crime as “a Chicago syndicate member,” according to public records, interviews and news accounts.

An FBI document from 1988 shows Simon was interviewed by two Chicago police officers who were assigned to the Joint Organized Crime Task Force and investigating the shotgun assassination attempt of Senese near his Oak Brook home. (Senese survived the shooting and died in 1992 of natural causes.)

Simon relayed “that he had known Dominic Senese and his family for so long that he could not remember how long,” according to the FBI document. As for the shooting, “Simon stated he had no direct knowledge.”

Nobody was ever charged in the case, which remains unsolved.

A 2002 report by the Independent Review Board, which roots out corruption in the Teamsters Union, asserted that Simon “knew Senese well.”

Simon disputed that, telling the BGA he knew Senese but they were only acquaintances who’d bump into each other at charity events and the like. Senese was someone to greet with “basic pleasantries” but they didn’t socialize, Simon said.

As for Daddano, Simon said they indeed partnered in a cleaning equipment business centered at McCormick Place, but Simon insisted Daddano isn’t a hoodlum, and has been unfairly tarred as such only because his late father was a reputed mobster. “Of course he’s an ‘associate’ [of organized crime], he’s his father’s son, he associates with his father,” Simon said. “In this country we’re not guilty of the sins of our fathers.”

Simon said he and Daddano were actually competitors who decided to team up in a business so they could share pricey industrial-sized vacuums and cut costs.

“We had a three-year deal together, it didn’t work because of the maintenance of the equipment and we abandoned the relationship,” Simon said, adding the company still existed on paper for a while longer on the advice of lawyers. Simon said he and Daddano shared in seven vacuums in total.

Daddano could not be reached for comment.

Regardless, Rivers officials were concerned enough that they fired United Service after the BGA started asking Culloton questions on May 6.

Culloton later released a statement confirming that United Service “performed security services, principally prior to the casino’s opening in 2011. From July 2011 until [earlier this month] it performed ‘deep cleaning’ of casino kitchens and kitchen equipment through its janitorial company, United Maintenance.”

The BGA asked how much Simon’s company has been paid, and how the hiring came about.

Other than to say that Bluhm and top Rivers official Greg Carlin have never “heard of Rick Simon before,” Rivers, through Culloton, declined to answer, saying in the statement that the casino “is deferring answers out of respect for the Illinois Gaming Board’s review of this matter.”

Simon said his company was hired by Rivers as part of a bidding process.

Meanwhile, Rivers has decided to hire attorney Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor who helped put ex-Gov. George Ryan in prison for corruption.

Collins will “lead this effort to facilitate any requests made by the Gaming Board,” according to the Rivers statement. “In addition, Mr. Collins will review the Casino’s policies and procedures and make recommendations to ensure Rivers meets the exacting standards of integrity and ethics it sets for itself to meet the Illinois Gaming Board’s culture of compliance.”

(Full disclosure: Collins is on the BGA’s board of directors, but he had nothing do with this BGA investigation.)

Asked why United Service was let go, and so quickly, Culloton said, “It was just simply a matter of being in a highly regulated industry where it’s important to the gaming board and to casino patrons that there be confidence in the integrity of the operations.” Culloton added that Rivers isn’t trying to “cast aspersions or pass judgment,” but casino officials “always operate with an abundance of caution.”

“That’s the culture that the gaming board wants to see, and the culture that they [casino officials] embrace,” he added.

Ostrowski said it’s too early to say whether his agency knew or should have known about United Service’s work at Rivers, or whether it’s an acceptable vendor.

The gaming board investigation comes as Chicago and state officials resurrect the oft-discussed revenue-generating idea of gambling expansion, including a casino within the city limits.

Right now there are 10 casinos statewide, all in the suburbs or Downstate.

Rivers recorded more than $38 million in adjusted gross gaming receipts last month – more than double any of the other casinos in Illinois.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, who can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9030.