Online gambling became legal in West Virginia when the state began to offer sports betting on Aug. 30. Even though the launch has been a success, a recent joint hearing in the West Virginia legislature revealed that many issues remain.
These revelations came during a meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance. In the meeting, West Virginia Lottery Acting Director Doug Buffington struggled to answer several pointed questions from legislators.
Chief among the lawmakers’ concerns was the turmoil at the West Virginia Lottery that led to Buffington’s appointment. Lottery director Alan Larrick abruptly left his post on Sep. 1, two days after Hollywood Casino Charles Town accepted its first sports bet.
Committee members also expressed dismay at the absence of Danielle Boyd, the Lottery’s general counsel. In a Sept. 17 article, WV MetroNews reporter Brad McElhinny wrote that Boyd is the Lottery’s subject expert on sports betting, so her disappearance stood out significantly.
“Is there anyone who can speak just generally to what’s going at the lottery? While we’re trying to roll out sports betting, the lottery director is gone,” complained Sen. Corey Palumbo. “I’ve not seen in here the longtime general counsel. I don’t know if the general counsel is still around or gone.”
Buffington declined to fully answer Palumbo’s question, citing a desire to protect Boyd’s reputation. However, he intimated that Boyd’s employment status at the lottery was in question, saying that the agency is “looking at concerns” regarding her employment.
Emergency rules creating tons of issues
The legislators’ comments were part of a discussion about emergency rules governing sports betting that the West Virginia Lottery released last month. The meeting, in fact, was to establish permanently which rules the Lottery Commission would implement.
However, last month’s adoption of the emergency rules required a 30-day period for public comment. During that period, one of the major comments was an eight-page letter from lobbyist Jeremy Kudon.
Kudon represents three of the major sports leagues – the NBA, the MLB and the PGA Tour. In his letter, Kudon urged lawmakers to reconsider giving integrity fees to leagues, designating official data sources, and giving the leagues veto power over the types of bets players can make.
Since the legislature has roundly rejected these sorts of suggestions in the past, Kudon’s letter would seem to be wasted ink. However, Kudon likely has an audience in the executive branch.
Justice administration a likely culprit for all the headaches
Gov. Jim Justice has had an uneasy relationship with sports betting since the law to legalize passed in March 2018. At the time, Justice refused to sign the bill and recused himself, citing conflicts of interest based upon his ownership of The Greenbrier Resort.
The Greenbrier is the spring training home of the NFL’s Houston Texans. It has also hosted the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans for their offseason activities. The resort also hosts an annual PGA Tour event.
So, it makes sense that Justice would be hesitant to put his signature on a sports betting bill. What makes less sense is the meeting that Justice’s special assistant, Bray Cary, organized after the bill became law.
Cary, an adviser to the governor with unfettered access to Justice, arranged a meeting between the state’s casinos and the sports leagues in an attempt to force a commercial agreement between the two. Justice reportedly phoned into the meeting to urge the casinos to cooperate.
McElhinny also reported that Boyd’s absence from the Lottery Commission could be the result of pressure from the governor’s office. Both she and the relevant lawmakers have remained staunch in their rejection of the leagues’ demands.
The committee wants the lottery to hold its horses
The Joint Committee on Finance meeting adjourned without any major decision. However, the committee urged Buffington to delay implementation of the rules until the legislature returned to session.
Sen. Craig Blair, the committee chairman, was visibly frustrated as he concluded the meeting.
“It’s just disturbing the hell out of me right now that this is taking place the way it is,” Blair said.