Gov. John Bel Edwards moved swiftly on Wednesday to fill a key government vacancy by naming a senior Louisiana State Police official as the new chairman of the state gambling board.
Lt. Col. Mike Noel, the number two official at State Police, replaces Ronnie Jones, who spent seven years as the head of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board before being unexpectedly ousted in a power play Monday by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson during a secret Senate session.
Noel spent nearly half of his 30 years in State Police regulating the gambling industry.
Noel’s first task will be managing the continued reopening of Louisiana’s gambling industry, which provides thousands of jobs throughout the state and is one of the biggest contributors to the state treasury.
“He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge and has served the state well during his tenure with State Police, which is why I have no doubt he will do the same in this new role,” Edwards said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him and continuing to build on the successes of former Chairman Jones and strengthening our relationship with the gaming industry.”
Noel will sign an order on Friday to allow the state’s casinos and video poker operators to move to Edwards’ Phase 2. Under it, the facilities can operate at 50% of capacity and operate 75% of their gambling devices.
In Phase 2, Edwards agreed to the industry’s request that casinos and video poker operators use plexiglass between gambling devices rather than require social distancing.
To chair the nine-member gambling board, Noel will resign from State Police. In his new role, state law calls for him to be both the chief regulator of the gambling industry and a promoter of it. He will oversee 20 casinos, 199 video poker truck stops and video poker machines at hundreds of bars and restaurants throughout the state.
“It’s in the state’s interest to create an environment where they can do well and be properly regulated,” Jones said in an interview Wednesday. “If you do it the right way, they can contribute to the economic development in the areas where they are located. The only reason we have legalized gambling is to promote economic development.”
In recent years, the casinos and video poker machines provided about $700 million per year to the state treasury, making gambling the fourth biggest contributor, ahead of the oil and gas industry, said Jim Richardson, an LSU economist. Gambling revenue, excluding the lottery, provides 7-8% of the state’s general fund revenue, he added.
“It’s important that it be run correctly,” Richardson said.
Louisiana’s gambling industry was engulfed in corruption and controversy after its legalization in the early 1990s, after the Harrah’s New Orleans casino opened, then shut down, then declared bankruptcy, and finally reopened again. Meanwhile, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards in the 1990s pressured state regulators to award licenses to friends. Edwards was later sent to prison for taking payoffs from riverboat casino owners.
During his seven years chairing the board, Jones found the sweet spot in firmly policing the gambling industry while also taking steps to ensure its continued growth.
“The state is a partner in these businesses,” he said.
With that in mind, Jones co-chaired the Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force, which in 2018 issued a recommendation, later adopted by the Legislature, to allow the 15 riverboats to move dockside.
The Isle of Capri in Lake Charles is the first boat moving onto land adjacent to its current berth.
Noel, Jones said he told Edwards, was “a perfect choice” for the job.
Noel, who served under Jones during Jones’ tenure as a State Police commander, called his predecessor at the gambling board “a mentor.”
In an interview Wednesday, Noel said he didn’t plan any major changes, at least for now.
“In the short term, it’s dealing with COVID and making sure the casinos reopen in a safe manner,” he said.
After being shut by Edwards for two months, the 20 casinos and 199 video poker truck stops have been operating since May 18 under the governor’s Phase 1 rules at 25% of capacity and with 50% of their gambling machines in operation.
Three of the casinos remain closed. Owners of DiamondJacks in Bossier City, which has been a low performer, chose not to reopen. Meanwhile, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has kept shuttered the Harrah’s casino and the Fairgrounds Race Course & Slots as the city reopens at a slower pace than the state.
Noel, a 53-year-old native of Plaquemine and an LSU grad, capped a 30-year career in State Police by serving during the past two years as the chief deputy to Superintendent Kevin Reeves. During his State Police tenure, Noel worked in the agency’s gaming division for 12 years, including eight years as the head of its Gaming Enforcement Division. He was also one of the 11 members of the riverboat task force.
Jones was appointed chairman of the gambling board in 2013 by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. Edwards reappointed him to another six-year term last year.
But Peterson, D-New Orleans, forced him out during a closed session of the Louisiana Senate on Monday. She was exercising a right given to any state senator – but little-known to the public – to stop the nomination of anyone to a state board or commission who is registered to vote in the senator’s district.
Peterson’s move shocked her colleagues both because she sprung it at the last minute and because Jones has been so well regarded.
She also blocked the confirmation of Walt Leger III, a former colleague in the Legislature, to continue as chairman of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
The moves by Peterson, who chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party, angered Edwards, the state’s most prominent Democrat.
Peterson has yet to explain her thinking publicly. She didn’t return three calls on Tuesday and one on Wednesday.