Former state Rep. Sean Eberhart is scheduled to plead guilty to conspiracy charges Tuesday morning at the federal courthouse in Indianapolis ― the latest domino to fall in a years-long entanglement between state lawmakers and the casino industry.
Federal prosecutors allege Eberhart, a Republican from Shelbyville who served in the General Assembly from 2007 to 2022, influenced a key gaming bill in 2019 to benefit casino operator Spectacle Entertainment in exchange for the promise of a job paying $350,000 a year.
Eberhart isn’t the first within Spectacle’s sphere of influence to face down prison time, and he isn’t expected to be the last.
Federal prosecutors allege there are “others known and unknown” who “conspired” with Eberhart to commit fraud.
Here are the players and what’s known so far.
What are Spectacle and Centaur?
New Centaur LLC, commonly referred to as Centaur, was an Indianapolis-based casino company that owned Indiana’s two horse-racing casinos in Anderson and Shelbyville. Rod Ratcliff was founder and CEO.
In July 2018, Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment acquired Centaur. After the sale, Ratcliff started Spectacle Entertainment, bringing along with him several top executives from Centaur.
Spectacle bought two casinos on Lake Michigan in Gary and wanted move them inland to downtown Gary and Terre Haute. In early 2019, the Indiana Gaming Commission approved Spectacle’s request to buy the casino licenses; Spectacle needed a bill from the General Assembly to approve the relocation.
That’s where Eberhart’s case comes in. Federal prosecutors allege he played a key role in negotiating aspects of a 2019 gaming bill in Spectacle’s favor, including reducing the fee associated with transferring those casino licenses to new locations from $100 million to $20 million. That bill became law in May 2019.
Who has been indicted in the past?
Former state Sen. Brent Waltz, a Republican from Greenwood, and state representative-turned-casino executive John Keeler were indicted in 2020 on charges that they conspired to funnel more than $40,000 from Centaur to Waltz’s failed congressional campaign in 2015.
Keeler, then the vice president and general counsel at Centaur, allegedly funneled this money through Maryland-based political consultant Kelley Rogers under the guise of paying for consulting services.
Ratcliff resigned from Spectacle in June 2020, amid intensifying scrutiny from both the FBI and the Indiana Gaming Commission. The gaming commission that December stripped Keeler and Ratcliff of their gaming licenses. Ratcliff sued, and as part of a settlement agreed to end his involvement in the casino industry in Indiana. Ratcliff has never been charged with any crimes.
In 2021, a grand jury added another charge to Keeler’s list: tax fraud. They allege Keeler listed the payments to the out-of-state political consultants as a deductible business expense on Centaur’s 2016 tax return, when they were actually political contributions.
In mid 2022, both Waltz and Keeler pleaded guilty shortly before their trial was set to begin. As part of Keeler’s plea deal, prosecutors dropped the straw-donor charges, and Keeler only served time for the one tax fraud charge.
After Waltz finished his prison time in March, he filed an affidavit seeking to overturn his sentence, claiming he had an ineffective lawyer during negotiations in 2022.
Previous controversies involving Spectacle
The criminal cases are just some of the controversies tied to Centaur and Spectacle.
A former Centaur executive, Kyle Waggoner, quietly pleaded guilty in 2021 to making an illegal campaign contribution in violation of Indiana’s ban on political giving by casino interests.
Prosecutors provided few details about the charge against Waggoner, but state Sen. Mark Messmer, who carried the 2019 gaming bill in the Senate, told IndyStar he believed a contribution to his campaign from a friend of Waggoner’s was at issue in the criminal case. Messmer has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Here are some of the other ties between the casino companies and elected officials that have raised ethical questions:
Ratcliff treated Gov. Eric Holcomb to two private-jet flights in 2018. One of them took place just a day before Ratcliff announced plans to acquire the two casino licenses in Gary and was not initially disclosed in required filings with the IRS. An investigation by the Indiana inspector general found no violations of the state’s ethics laws.
Ratcliff’s partner and fellow investor in Spectacle, Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson, arranged a potentially lucrative legal contract in 2018 for then-Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, an attorney, to advise the Vigo County Capital Improvement Board, of which Gibson was a member at the time. Bosma recused himself from votes on the 2019 gaming bill.
Spectacle hired state Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, for title work and closing services in 2018. Torr then voted in favor of the 2019 legislation that would have allowed Spectacle to move its casino licenses to more lucrative locations. He told IndyStar he gave up his estimated $3,000 to $4,000 commission from the deal with Spectacle prior to the vote. He has announced plans to retire after the 2024 session.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Ex-Rep. Sean Eberhart latest to plead guilty in casino-related schemes
Elaine Hadley is a dedicated journalist covering the ever-evolving landscape of U.S. news. With a keen interest in politics and a commitment to uncovering the truth, she provides insightful commentary and in-depth analysis on domestic issues. When not reporting, Elaine enjoys exploring the diverse cultures and landscapes of the United States.