by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 14, 2009
GETTING A BUZZ
INDIANAPOLIS. March 10, 2009 -- By e-mail and telephone, the White House has signaled its disapproval of a full-blown ad campaign for an Indiana gambling firm that opens a new casino Friday, the American Reporter has learned. The offending ads show a likeness of President Barack Obama calling for economic growth and "change."
But out of "respect for the President," the casino has agreed to pull the ads after this weekend, its general manager said today. Indications are they were a big winner for the house, in which the White House appears to have played an unwitting role.
"White House policy is to disapprove uses of the President's name or image for the purpose of promoting commercial enterprises," White House lawyer Karen Dunn told attorneys for Dennis Gomes, CEO of gaming operations for casino developer The Cordish Company. Its subsidiary manages the $200-million Indiana Live! casino that paid for the ads. White House spokesperson Amy Brundage confirmed that Dunn had phoned for information and then sent the note.
It is longstanding policy at the White House to disapprove of uses like these, a White House spokesperson said on background. The spokesperson said Dunn just expressed White House policy, and had not sought to order the casino to cease and desist from using his likeness in the ads.
What isn't clear is whether the White House has a legal basis to prevent use of the president's image for commercial reasons, a topic raised in a recent Washington Times article about the ads. Today, a presidential spokesperson was careful to say its lawyers had not demanded that the ads be pulled. And the audience, which would have to give individual permission for commercial exploitation of faces in the crowd, was apparently a crew of extras paid by the ad agency to cheer for the fake president as the ads were filmed.
Gomes, a colorful figure who was formerly president of Atlantic City's Trump Taj Mahal casino and the Tropicana Casino & Resort, also worked for mega-developer Steve Wynn, who opened the Mirage and Golden Nugget, where Gomes also worked, and Howard Hughes' Summa Corp. He is a former chief special investigator for the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement and onetime lead investigator for the Nevada Gaming Commission. A Nevada investigation that Gomes led provided the underlying story for the film "Casino," and the New York Times once called him Atlantic City's "most uncoventional casino president."
For his part, candidate Obama rallied casino workers at the Mirage in Las Vegas last January during the campaign's effort to win the Democratic primary there. Several large casinos gave workers time off and kept centralized caucus polling stations with extended hours open inside to get support from unionized workers who supported the President.
Current campaign records are spotty and inconsistent, but they show The Cordish Company chairman David Cordish and his wife have given $140,000 to politicians since 2000, including $10,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2007; he was formerly a Bush supporter. Gomes was a substantial contributor to the Tropicana PAC as a longtime executive of the Aztar Corp., which owned the Tropicana, but left after a management shake-up in 2005 to join the Trump Taj Mahal.
Gomes, who became a Cordish Company executive in 2007, reportedly paired with David Cordish in 2008 in an unsuccessful $1 billion bid for the Trump casino, but there are no records of any recent contributions. The gaming industry gave generously to politicians in 2008, with more than $10.1 million going to Democrats and $6.1 million to Republicans. Over the past 10 election cycles, the industry has favored Democrats with 55 percent of its largesse, which since 2000 has totaled $85,560,000.
The ad campaign was Gomes' idea, officials said. After the Indianapolis Fox News affiliate broke the story of the ads, MSNBC picked it up and the ad became news. For Gomes, it was off to the races.
In the ad, and in a voice uncannily like the President's, the unnamed actor playing Obama roars, Obama-style, "Hello, Indianapolis!" He continues, saying "Our time for change has come. Months ago, we began the work of making sure the new Indiana Live! Casino is superior to anything that existed in Indiana." No political angle was intended, Hemmerle said.
"He holds the President in high esteem, and we've agreed to pull the ads after the this weekend," said casino general manager Mark Hemmerle. "He is very respectful of the President." But a televised news report from WISH-TV in Indianapolis on March 6 said the ads were already scheduled to come to an end "next week."
So, did the house play the House?
According to the White House, their Office of Legal Counsel called to inquire about the ads, heard back from the casino's attorneys, and then responded with the statement on its no-commercial-use policy. It appears to be the timing of Dunn's first call on Monday that gave the story new life for a few more news cycles.
The White House, in an e-mail message to The American Reporter late today, said there would be no comment on the decision to take the ads down, since it was the casino's decision.
Hemmerle said it was too late to pull the ads before the Friday the 13th grand opening.
Dunn did not immediately respond to a message left by The American Reporter requesting a comment because her office had mistranscribed this newspaper's phone number, an aide explained by e-mail later.
The image of the President talking on the ads shows a lookalike from the back as he parodies Obama campaign speeches, and is intersperesed with Obama-like slogans in blue-and-white or animated graphics. They carry disclaimers that say, "This is a paid parody ad," but the audience is waving campaign signs that are identical to those waved during 2008 rallies for Obama. The ad is used in an expensive tv, radio, billboard and print campaign that has saturated the Indianapolis market for weeks.
Generally, the ad flatters the President more than it parodies him. It picks up his positive economic message and links it to a popular if controversial American pasttime in a way that probably leaves most viewers amused and perhaps hopeful, not angry. It would probably violate campaign laws during a presidential year, where it might well be seen as an advertisement for the President and the casino.
A casino official said the faked message of "change" in the "presidential" speech played upon the casino's change from a temporary 75,000-sq.ft. facility to a new one three times larger. Indiana has been especially hard-hit by the recession; Elkhart, Ind., recently reported the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
"We're a little economic stimulus of our own," Hemmerle said, noting that the casino uses "hundreds" of vendors and hired about 2,500 workers for construction.
The 233,000-sq.ft. Indiana Live!, which opens at 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 13, is 20 minutes from downtown Indianapolis in Shelbyville. It offers 2,000 machines with electronic-ticket versions of blackjack, roulette and three-card poker, and live Texas Hold 'Em in an expansive state-of-the-art poker room. Along with the Maker's Mark bar, there are several restaurants including a NASCAR Sports Grille, and two nightclubs. It will provide 750 casino jobs, a press release said.
Hemmerle said the company paid a $250-million licensing fee to the state and was required to spend at least $100 million on construction. When finished, the cost reached about $200 million, he said.
Built by Las Vegas-based Klai Juba Architects, Indiana! Live will be open 24 hours a day, have parking for 3,200 and is next to Indiana Downs, a year-round horse-racing track.
Authorities hope the casino will raise $112 million in tax revenue yearly, with $70 million of that going to the state of Indiana and $6.7 million to Shelby County and nearby cities and towns.
Indiana, long a Republican stronghold, unexpectedly went Democratic for Obama in 2008. Now, apparently without trying, he's returned the favor - in spades.
An American Reporter Correspondent based in Indianapolis provided assistance with this story.