Reynolds flies into Cedar Rapids casino turbulence

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Usually, tracking political influence means following the money. But sometimes, you also can follow the contrails.

In this case, they came from a private jet owned by Gary Kirke, chairman and founder of Wild Rose Casinos & Resorts. Newly minted Gov. Kim Reynolds and her acting lieutenant Adam Gregg used Kirke’s jet for a post-inaugural fly-around tour of Iowa. The arrangement was first reported by the Associated Press.

It just so happens Kirke wants to open a “boutique” casino in downtown Cedar Rapids and is seeking a state license to make it happen. He’s in competition with the Cedar Rapids Development Group, led by businessman Steve Gray. CRDG is making a second attempt to get a license after failing to win one in 2014.

Kirke also is co-hosting a fundraiser for Reynolds next week at the home of Chuck Larson, a former Cedar Rapids legislator and Republican Party of Iowa chair whose consulting firm is assisting Wild Rose’s casino bid. Kirke’s business partner, Michael Richards, chair of the Board of Regents, and former Gov. Terry Branstad’s former chief of staff Jeff Boeyink also are among the hosts.

Kirke and Richards donated $15,000 combined to Reynolds in December.

It’s all so cozy. And like so many unseemly aspects of our political cash machine, it’s all perfectly legal. Kirke’s just a generous guy with a jet. Reynolds has no official role in handing out casino licenses. That’s up to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, appointed by the governor. Shrug.

Gambling and politics have mixed before. Gray held a fundraiser at his home in 2012 featuring Branstad and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, although that soiree came months before Linn County voters approved a gambling referendum and long before the licensing process. Many investors who backed Cedar Crossing in 2014 are influential donors to Branstad and other powerful politicos. But Kirke’s jet-set generosity in the midst of the licensing process takes on a different aroma. Nobody making a high-stakes bid for a state gambling license should be doing favors for the state’s chief executive. I don’t care if it’s legal. And without the AP report, we might not have known about the flights until disclosures are filed in January. The gaming commission makes its decision in November.

It’s Reynolds’ responsibility to rise above this sort of thing, and not in Kirke’s jet.

Ask former Gov. Chet Culver, who backed casino projects and raised bucks from casino interests. Questionable contributions from two backers of a Fort Dodge casino sparked the appointment of a special prosecutor in the middle of Culver’s 2010 campaign. Culver was never accused of wrongdoing, and the most serious charges eventually were dropped, but only after Branstad won big. Boeyink, who was Branstad’s campaign manager, called it “a culture of corruption.”

Still, it’s also possible this new, jet-powered disclosure will hurt Wild Rose’s bid. Now, if the commission approves its license, charges of favoritism could dog commissioners and Reynolds as she runs in 2018. I bet her likely GOP primary opponent, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, will bring it up. Buckle up. Turbulence ahead.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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