Mayor Levar Stoney is publicly advocating for a casino in South Richmond after receiving $20,000 in political donations from a recently formed organization that includes an investor in the development project.
The mayor’s re-election campaign received the donation from the Black Opportunity Council in October, about a month after an investor in the Urban One casino project and two other people formed the organization.
After a months-long evaluation process this spring, Stoney and city officials who reviewed the six casino development projects that were submitted earlier this year recommended the Urban One project for approval by local voters in a referendum.
Including the donation to Stoney, the Black Opportunity Council and Urban One CEO Alfred Liggins personally donated a total of nearly $90,000 last year to local and state candidates. Most of the recipients were either Richmond City Council candidates or state legislators who played a role in writing the state’s casino bill.
Greg Cummings, a founding director of the Black Opportunity Council, said he sought to become an investor in the Urban One project a few months after last year’s elections. In an interview last week, he denied any connection between the donations and the casino project and said any suggestion to the contrary is “a stretch.”
“There are no ties. They are separate organizations,” he said. “[The Black Opportunity Council] advocates for Black inclusion and equity issues. ... That is its purpose. It has nothing to do with a casino.”
Jim Nolan, spokesman for the mayor and his administration, said the political donations did not influence the mayor’s decision to recommend Urban One.
Richmond initially received the casino development proposals after issuing a request for them in December. After a months-long evaluation process, from late February to late May, Stoney and a panel of city officials last month selected Urban One. They had narrowed the choice to that project or The Cordish Cos.’ plan to build a casino resort on Arthur Ashe Boulevard where the Bow Tie movie theater is currently located.
The proposed location for the Urban One project is a property owned by Philip Morris USA near the intersection of Walmsley Boulevard and Commerce Road. Supporters of the project say it would create an opportunity to revitalize the surrounding area, including the Richmond Highway corridor.
Investors and companies tied to both finalists have donated to local politicians in the past. For example, Beverly B. Davis, chief operating officer of Davis Brothers Construction Co., which was partnered with Cordish, donated $2,500 to Stoney’s campaign last year. Canterbury Enterprises, another Cordish partner, gave $1,000 to Michael Jones and $250 to Reva Trammel for their respective Richmond City Council re-election campaigns.
Richmond television station WRIC last week reported that several people named in Urban One’s list of local investors also have previously donated to Stoney’s political campaigns. (Neil Amin, CEO of Shamin Hotels, which owns the building where the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s downtown offices are located, is an investor in the project. He previously donated to Stoney’s 2016 mayoral campaign and his One Richmond political action committee.)
Liggins, Urban One’s CEO, personally donated nearly $50,000 to local and state candidates last year.
Locally, he donated $1,000 each to three African American candidates in last year’s mayoral race — Stoney and challengers Alexsis Rodgers and Kim Gray. Earlier this year he donated $5,000 to Jones’ recently suspended campaign to unseat Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond.
At the state level, as he was lobbying for the state’s casino bill, Liggins donated to the campaigns of Black candidates, including $19,210 to Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and $10,000 to House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, who made minority ownership and investment a priority in the casino legislation.
Initially, the legislation would have given Richmond the choice of projects proposed by the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which also is seeking the license for a casino in Norfolk, and Colonial Downs, a subsidiary of Peninsula Pacific Entertainment, which also operates the chain of Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums and has partnered with Urban One to run its prospective Richmond casino. But the General Assembly sought to broaden the competition more than a year ago in part because Liggins raised the issue as the owner of four radio stations in the region that target a Black audience.
Liggins declined an interview request last week through a spokesman for Urban One, but he said in an email that he and his company have long supported candidates and organizations in the communities where it operates.
Prior to last year, Liggins and Urban One Inc. had given approximately $25,000 to various local and state candidates, including Bagby; Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond; former Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond; and Democrats Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“I’m incredibly proud of our record of support, which is fully transparent and shows our focus on education, workforce development and opportunity equity,” Liggins said. “Having said that, we have not donated to or met with the Black Opportunity Fund. We cannot speak to what our individual investors have done. We have never asked, nor is it relevant to their participation with ONE, what groups or political candidates our investors support.”
The Black Opportunity Council filed articles of incorporation with the state in September. Within days it donated thousands of dollars to several African American candidates running for local and state offices, including:
- $20,000 to Stoney’s re-election campaign;
- $10,000 to Amy Wentz’s failed Richmond City Council bid against Trammell in the 8th District;
- $5,000 each to Richmond City Council President Cynthia Newbille and 6th District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson;
- $2,600 for Virginia Attorney General candidate Jay Jones; and
- $2,500 each to Ann Lambert and Katherine Jordan, who were both elected to their first term on the Richmond City Council last November.
Ross Williams, the executive director of the Black Opportunity Council, said he started forming the organization last summer in order to back politicians and organizations that promote Black business and social issues. He said the group has also worked with candidates in New York and Washington, D.C.
“While Mr. Cummings is a member of our Advisory Board and founding Director of the BOC ... I was not aware of his investment in the project as his personal investments have nothing to do with the work of the BOC and frankly do not concern me,” he said. “I can assure you there are no nefarious dealings as have been insinuated.”
Williams said Urban One and Peninsula Pacific have not donated to the Black Opportunity Council. He declined to disclose any of the organization’s funding sources.
Kevin Zeithaml, Stoney’s campaign manager and executive director of the mayor’s One Richmond PAC, said the campaign spoke with officials from the Black Opportunity Council before accepting the $20,000 donation. “To put it simply, they were Black business leaders donating to a Black candidate — not too dissimilar from white business leaders donating to a white candidate,” he said.
Tad Berman, a self-described gaming industry watchdog, says Cummings’ tie to the group warrants further investigation by local and state authorities. In a letter to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring last month, Berman requested that his office investigate the Black Opportunity Council.
Berman, who has a Facebook page called “Virginians For Integrity in Horse Racing and Casino Gambling,” said he also forwarded his letter to the city’s attorney and the executive director of the Virginia Department of Elections, but has not heard back from local or state officials about it.
Charlotte Gomer, a spokesperson for the attorney general, declined to say whether his office has looked into the allegations. “We generally don’t comment on pending investigations, even to confirm whether or not one may be ongoing,” she said.
Bagby said he doesn’t know much about the Black Opportunity Council, but sees a double standard in scrutiny of organizations that support Black political candidates and participation by Blacks in emerging industries such as casino gaming.
“If it’s a group of Black individuals who are pooling their money to support candidates and issues that align with their views, I think it’s long overdue,” he said.
Bagby said that the gaming and legal marijuana industries offer “opportunities for Blacks to finally have a significant engagement in industries, unlike ever before.”
He also questioned the motivations behind scrutiny of organizations, such as the Black Opportunity Council, and Black people who make contributions to political campaigns.
Wentz and Jordan said in interviews that they were a bit wary about the Black Opportunity Council’s source of funding when it first approached them last fall, but that they eventually felt comfortable to accept the money after speaking to Williams.
They said Williams did not mention the casino project in those discussions.
Robertson, who served on the city panel that evaluated the six casino development proposals, said in an email that officials from the Black Opportunity Council never spoke with her about the casino project when they donated to her campaign last year.
Announcing the evaluation panel and mayor’s recommendation of the Urban One project last month, the city’s communications office said they based their decision on the project’s location, its anticipated economic impact and the community benefits it would create.
City officials expected both projects to generate around $30 million annually, but Cordish proposed to build a bigger casino resort with more hotel rooms and restaurants along with a larger upfront payment to the city if voters approved its plans.
Andreas Addison, the only other City Council member who served on the evaluation panel, said public opinion was key.
While Urban One saw meager support from a few civic associations near its project site, more than a dozen neighborhood groups publicly opposed the Cordish plans.
“You kind of have to factor whether there would be support for it to pass the referendum,” Addison said. “If you’re starting from a ‘No’ in a couple of districts, it would be hard to overcome that come November.”
While Stoney has publicly spoken in favor of the project, some of the candidates who received donations from the Black Opportunity Council have been either critical or silent about the Urban One project.
Wentz said her neighbors seem generally supportive of it, but that she’s been unimpressed by it.
Jordan publicly spoke against the Cordish project in her district earlier this year, but never endorsed the Urban One project.
In an interview Thursday, she said she remains undecided about whether she will vote to hold a referendum in November to let voters decide on the project.
“I share my constituents’ deep concerns about the gaming industry,” she said. “Personally, I think Richmond has so many more positive assets that I would rather see further supported and developed before a casino.”