Zurik: Harrah's lobbying draws fire from watchdog

Updated: May. 11, 2018 at 10:15 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A local crime watchdog advises lawmakers to pause a controversial lease extension for Harrah's Casino after FOX 8 uncovered potential conflicts of interest among negotiators.

A state Senate committee will vote Monday on whether to advance a bill that would give Harrah's an additional 30 years on its New Orleans license.

"Harrah's is playing chess," says Rafael Goyeneche, longtime head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. "And they have hired lobbyists based on their belief that those lobbyists can advocate for them in the proper circles."

One of those lobbyists, hired by Harrah's, is New Orleans attorney Ira Middleberg. A FOX 8 investigation found that Middleberg employs two state senators at his law firm, JP Morrell and Wesley Bishop. According to the Advocate, Morrell and Bishop have been negotiating with Harrah's on the state's behalf, while the partner in their law firm has been lobbying on the other side.

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"If they're telling legislators that this is a good deal without disclosing their financial interests in Mr. Middleberg's firm, I think that that is potentially a conflict of interest," Goyeneche warns. "And I think legislators and the public have the right to know that type of information, so they can filter the value of what is being told them by someone who may have a financial stake in the outcome of this legislation."

Middleberg's spokesperson told us his law firm was not retained by Harrah's, but Middleberg "has been retained personally."

"The fact that he is trying to distinguish, you know, that this isn't his law firm, and this is him personally - that to me indicates a recognition of a conflict," Goyeneche says. "He signs their paychecks. Do you really think that Mr. Middleberg hasn't spoken to JP Morrell or Wesley Bishop? You think that they don't know he's been retained by Harrah's? What I suspect is that he's trying to split that hair and make that distinction, because he realizes that, if it were his law firm, it would be a potential conflict of interest for two of his employees who are state legislators, advocating for this deal."

And because of the findings on these potential conflicts, Goyeneche says, he hopes the legislature pauses on this deal.

"The public, I think, has a right to know that there is a financial relationship," the MCC president says. "That's why Harrah's hired Ira Middleberg, because of his relationships, because of his contacts. And Harrah's knew about it. Does the rest of the legislature know about it? Does the public know about it? They do now. But that's the reason why I think we need to pump the breaks on this."

Morrell and Bishop have refused to give us a comment.  Harrah's says no conflicts exist.

Goyeneche says he hasn't seen a thing yet that shows this deal is a win for taxpayers. "They need to do their homework to make sure that the Harrah's deal is in the best interest of the public and not just Harrah's."

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