So maybe there's nothing wrong with lobbyists for Las Vegas high rollers meeting with higher-ups from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation at the Park Hyatt.
But for an organization at least outwardly concerned about appearances when it comes to its so-called modernization plans (the OLG just appointed Justice Coulter Osborne to advise its board), the optics are not good.
A feeding frenzy of lobbying over a Toronto casino is already taking place behind the scenes at both City Hall and Queen's Park, including by friends of OLG chair Paul Godfrey (see sidebar). Hey, just sayin'.
To hear Tony Bitonti, OLG's senior manager of media relations, tell it, the Park Hyatt meeting in late May was just one of a number of presentations OLG's been making to interested parties as part of its plan to modernize (read privatize) its gaming and lottery operations under that much-publicized plan launched back in March.
"We're just going round telling everyone what the process is," Bitonti says. "Not everyone understands the full complexity of it. It's not a big secret."
So there is no plot being concocted to con Toronto city councillors? Frankly, it's a little hard to swallow that the high-priced help hired by gaming interests would have a hard time understanding the parameters set out for the bidding process in OLG's request for information (RFI) document.
Facts to consider:
• The meeting in question was organized by the Canadian Gaming Association, the trade organization for the gaming industry.
• The OLG reps in attendance - head of procurement Brenda Gibbons and vice-president of stakeholder relations Beth Webster - will presumably have a say in decisions related to a casino in the GTA and the proposed sale of OLG assets, which also forms part of the RFI.
• The RFI issued by OLG stipulates clearly that "OLG will not be conducting a briefing session for this RFI."
On the last point, Bitonti makes a distinction that the meeting at the Park Hyatt was an information session about process, not a briefing.
So why not just march interested parties into OLG's offices, in which case the details would be available to any member of the public wishing to make a Freedom of Information request? What information could bidders not get from the RFI itself?
Says Bitonti: "If they hear it from the horse's mouth, they understand it a lot better, and it just puts us out there with a human face, really, to explain the situation."
Turns out that Howard Grant, the Ottawa-based consultant hired by OLG as a fairness monitor to make sure the bidding process is free of conflicts of interest, signed off on the Park Hyatt session.
In Grant's view, the formal bidding process hasn't officially begun, so there's been no blurring of the lobbying lines.
"I don't see any issue at all," he says. "In fact, I will tell you we encourage these types of meetings, because, really, if you have good competition you're going to get a better result."
It's unclear if anyone outside casino backers has had info sessions with OLG reps.
The one formal overview of its modernization plans that was advertised in OLG's RFI was held at the three-day Canadian Gaming Summit in Niagara Falls earlier this month. There, Bitonti says, OLG officials were followed around by other OLG staff just to make sure potential GTA casino bidders weren't whispering sweet somethings into their ears. There's a switch.
Uncertainty about process this early in the procurement process are not an encouraging sign. As Councillor Shelley Carroll points out, it's mistakes made early in the process of big tenders like this that come back to bite in the form of lawsuits from unsuccessful bidders.