New Aztar owner to come under scrutiny of Indiana Gaming Commission

By Maureen Hayden

The Indiana Gaming Commission's decision to launch an investigation into Columbia Sussex Corp.'s handling of potential layoffs at Casino Aztar is a "good sign" of how seriously the commission takes it role, says the city's legal counsel, Joe Champion.

Commission staff informed Champion Tuesday that they will look into allegations made by Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel that Columbia Sussex officials were less than forthright about the number of planned layoffs that would occur at the riverboat casino after Columbia completed its merger with Aztar last year.

Among the questions expected to be raised by staff involve Columbia Sussex's explanation for the potential layoff of an additional 70 employees in Evansville. According to Weinzapfel, Columbia Sussex officials said the predicted layoffs were due to a decrease in revenue linked to the opening of a new casino in French Lick, Ind., in November.

But earlier this month, the Atlantic City, N.J., newspaper, The Press, reported that Columbia Sussex has laid off 550 employees at the Tropicana Casino and Resort since it took ownership in January. The newspaper quoted employees saying there had been "nothing but fear" since the ownership change.

The newspaper also reported that New Jersey Assemblyman James Whelan has asked the New Jersey Department of Labor to conduct an investigation to determine if Columbia Sussex had violated any labor laws in the terminations.

Columbia Sussex, based in Fort Mitchell, Ky., acquired Aztar's casinos in Atlantic City, Evansville, and Nevada in a $2.75 billion takeover.

Champion said Columbia officials previously told Weinzapfel and the Gaming Commission that they would eliminate no more than 20 positions due to the French Lick casino's opening.

Columbia Sussex officials contend Weinzapfel's letter to the Indiana Gaming Commission is premature because no final decisions had been made about layoffs at the Evansville venue. But Champion says the Indiana Gaming Commission has broad discretion in its investigations and cited the Commission's decision to transfer Aztar's gaming license to Columbia Sussex after hearing assurances that a change in ownership would not have a detrimental economic impact on Evansville.