In March 2019, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson was forced to acknowledge publicly that she was a gambling addict after she violated a state gambling board rule that she not enter Louisiana’s casinos.
On Monday, in an extraordinary power play, Peterson ousted the highly regarded chairman of the gambling board, Ronnie Jones, during a private session of the Louisiana Senate where senators could exercise a little-known authority to veto appointees of Gov. John Bel Edwards and other statewide elected officials to dozens of boards and commissions.
Besides representing New Orleans in the Senate, Peterson is the long-time chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, so her surprise decision also puts her at odds with Edwards, the state’s most prominent Democrat. On Tuesday, he sharply criticized the failure to confirm Jones without mentioning Peterson.
Peterson’s move, which she has not explained publicly, targeted Jones and four other appointees, including Walt Leger III, a former colleague in the Legislature and speaker pro tem who has now lost his job as chairman of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
“I felt blindsided and somewhat betrayed by the process,” Jones said in an interview Tuesday adding that he can’t explain why he was removed.
Jones said he had attempted both last year and this year to explain to Peterson that he had nothing to do with the public revelation that she had voluntarily put herself on a secret list of people who cannot enter a Louisiana casino – to try to control her gambling problem – but then had been caught on the floor of L’Auberge Casino in Baton Rouge.
“She did not give me the courtesy of a meeting,” Jones said.
Peterson also did not alert the governor’s office about her concerns with Jones, Leger and the four others, a breach of senatorial courtesy. Had she done so, Edwards could have tried to smooth relations or withdrawn the nominees before the confirmation session.
Peterson’s move leaves the gambling board without a chairman at a time when Jones was overseeing the reopening of the state’s casinos.
The Convention Center board is also leaderless now while grappling with how to recover from the collapse of its business and push forward with plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to refurbish the state facility, upgrade Convention Center Boulevard and possibly build a massive hotel.
“It’s especially disturbing and unfortunate that during this time of great uncertainty, when we need experienced leadership to help our gaming industry continue to reopen safely and for New Orleans’ tourism and convention industry to recover, two highly qualified and experienced appointees were unexpectedly blocked,” Edwards said in a statement.
Under the rules, the governor will have to name someone else and cannot reappoint Jones or Leger to their posts for at least a year.
Peterson’s presence in the State Capitol Monday was a surprise because she had been absent since the Legislature resumed business on May 4. She explained her absence in tweets, saying she didn’t feel safe there during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate carried out business as usual Monday and then went into executive session in the afternoon to consider some 700 appointees to boards and commissions, along with the governor’s cabinet members. During that meeting, the Senate is cleared of all but the 39 senators and a handful of staff. The Senate TV camera is turned off.
In a little-known tradition, senators have the right to block the appointment of someone who is a registered voter in their district to a board or commission.
In a typical year, senators put the hold on several obscure appointees, and practically no one cares.
But on Monday, with senators gathered in the front of the chamber, the first secretary of the Senate, J.W. Wiley, evoked shock when he read off a list of appointees who were being blocked, and it included Jones and Leger, said four people who were present and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Senators asked Wiley to identify who had issued the holds, and that’s when they learned it was Peterson. She did not explain her rationale.
She did not return three calls Tuesday.
Peterson’s move against Jones comes 15 months after she was forced to admit that she had a gambling problem following a report on WWL-TV that she had quietly placed her name on the gambling board’s do-not visit list and then had violated that by visiting L’Auberge. The State Police issued her a misdemeanor summons, in keeping with the law’s provisions.
Peterson went public with her addiction minutes after the WWL-TV news report.
“It is a disease,” she wrote in an email. “From time to time, I have relapsed; I have let myself down as well as family and friends who are near and dear to me.”
Jones reached out to her afterward.
“I was hoping to offer a recommendation on resources for her problem and how the gaming control board operated in managing the self-exclusion list,” he said Tuesday. “I wanted to say I’ve known about this for a long time and never disclosed it.”
Jones was appointed to a six-year term as chairman of the gambling board by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2013 after spending 33 years with Louisiana State Police. He helped establish the initial regulations after gambling was legalized in the 1990s, became the deputy under one superintendent and a senior assistant to another.
Edwards reappointed him last year to another six-year term that required Senate confirmation.
Jones has won plaudits from fellow regulators, political insiders and gambling industry officials for treating everyone equally and insisting on adherence to Louisiana’s strict regulations.
“Louisiana just lost a true leader in the gaming industry,” Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Industry, said in an email Tuesday.
“I admired how he held us all accountable yet was able to still be a leading force on behalf of the industry,” Dan Real, who oversees the operations of Caesars Entertainment in Louisiana, including the Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, said in a text.
Leger, meanwhile, was an influential member of the state House for 12 years before term limits last year sidelined him. Edwards tabbed him to chair the Convention Center. The governor had to choose him from a list of names forwarded by the hospitality industry.
“I couldn’t have been more surprised to hear that I wasn’t confirmed and how that went down,” Leger said Tuesday. Asked about his relationship with Peterson, he said, “We’ve worked very closely to represent the same constituencies.”
The other four appointees blocked by Peterson were: Adam Buras, to the Board of Examiners of Bar Pilots for the Port of New Orleans; Benjamin Dupuy, to the board of the Louisiana State Museum; Brent Newman, to the Louisiana Advisory Commission on Pesticides; and Sandra Shilstone, to the Louisiana State Museum Board.
“I am disappointed,” Shilstone said Tuesday. “I am perplexed.”