Bermuda’s new One Bermuda Alliance Government and its political neophyte leader Craig Cannonier are facing their most serious credibility crisis to date over handling of a casino developer’s interest in a country where casino gambling is not legal.
Cannonier, who assumed the Bermuda Premiership when his party won the Government in December 2012, has rejected allegations of wrongdoing in a saga with as much drama as a best-selling political novel. The story involves Nathan Landow, a Maryland-based casino developer with reported links to organized crime, a political flip flop on a promised referendum on the legalization of casino gaming and the country’s desperate need to attract external investment and revive its ailing tourism industry.
On March 20, 2013, Cannonier, Mark Pettingill, the country’s Attorney General and Tourism Minister Shawn Crockwell, boarded Landow’s eight-seat Gulfstream 200 and headed to Washington, DC to meet with the developer and his associates.
A political storm ensued when news of the trip – dubbed “Jetgate” by the Opposition Progressive Labour Party – leaked to the media two months later, and Cannonier was forced to give a personal explanation to parliament.
A “wealthy individual from Maryland” had contacted him requesting a meeting between his investment group and the new Government, the Premier told parliament in May 2013.
This gentleman stated that he had extensive experience in the gaming industry and wanted to share with the Government his views regarding gaming’s potential to help revitalise our tourism industry and generate jobs for Bermudians.”
Among the properties discussed was the 124-acre site of the former Club Med resort in the east end of the island, Cannonier told Bermuda’s legislators.
Government rejected Opposition charges that, by accepting the all expenses paid two-night trip, it breached an ethical code governing the conduct of Ministers, claiming that the meeting was purely informational and no negotiations had taken place.
Moreover, the Government argued, taxpayer funds were spared by the trip which was in keeping with its mandate to sell Bermuda to interested investors.
Our own inquiries into the matter, and subsequent developments, have turned up a series of inconsistencies and contradictions which throw into question the Premier’s version of events.
This report is based on several conversations with key players, including Landow, and a number of sources who insisted on anonymity.
Our sources cited risks to their livelihoods, if named in this story, as a reason for requesting anonymity.
Cannonier has said his first contact with Landow was shortly before the Jetgate trip when the developer contacted him to request a meeting, but that has been contradicted by Washington insiders who told us that the Premier had been introduced to Landow before the 2012 general election.
Landow told Bermuda’s daily newspaper that he did not recall how the “Jetgate” meeting came about.
Among those attending the meeting at Landow’s plush DC headquarters, besides the four guests from Bermuda, were his longtime business partner Richard Cohen and representatives of the Innovation Group, a UK based business consultancy that had advised the Bermuda Government on gaming.
Landow summoned all the guests to the meeting at his expense, accommodating the Ministers at the luxurious Four Seasons hotel.
Sometime in the fall of 2012, as Bermuda geared up for the official start of a brutal general election campaign, Cannonier approached Landow asking for a campaign donation, according to a Washington, DC-based source who is close to the developer’s business dealings.
That source cited personal and livelihood risks if identified in this story, so we’ve opted for the moniker Otitoju.
Craig just came to the group and said ‘look we got a chance to win this election. We’re close, we’re in favour of gambling. Let’s do it’,” said Otitoju.
Landow and his associates obliged, wiring $300,000 to the One Bermuda Alliance within 24 hours, Otitoju said.
Asked directly whether he had donated funds to the OBA’s campaign, Landow said: “I don’t have any comment on that. I don’t have any knowledge.”
An OBA spokesperson said the party will not “discuss its financial contributors in any way.”
OBA Chairman Thad Hollis repeated the line in a brief interview on April 25, saying the party’s policy is not to make any comment that would compromise the privacy of its donors.
But he added: “I can tell you I have never met with Mr Landow. I had never heard of him and his name had never been mentioned to me before I read about it on Bernews in a [PLP] press release” at the end of 2013.
Bermuda has no laws or regulations governing the financing of political parties or election campaigns.
Confronted by Politica, on February 14 when parliament resumed its sessions after the Christmas break, Cannonier admitted that there was a fourth person on the “Jetgate” trip – Steven DeCosta, his close personal friend and manager of his fuel stations.
That was a private jet and Mr. Landow can answer that. Everyone knows that Steven is a very, very good friend of mine. And he was on the plane. So it was no secret,” the Premier said, agreeing with a suggestion that DeCosta was simply hitching a ride to the US capital.
But he denied that DeCosta attended the meetings with Landow and his associates.
No, of course not. Of course not,” the Premier said on February 14.
Days later, Tourism Minister Shawn Crockwell told radio talk show host Sherri Simmons that DeCosta was in fact in attendance at the “Jetgate” meeting.
The Premier’s confirmation that DeCosta was on the private jet trip added fuel to further charges from the Opposition party.
And it came a day after we raised the matter
and Crockwell, both of whom refused to discuss DeCosta, almost a year after the trip itself had taken place.
Opposition Leader Marc Bean kicked off the Valentine’s Day furore by reporting to the House of Assembly that Cannonier told him in private conversation that “a developer” was willing to make an upfront payment to him, the Tourism Minister and the Attorney General, for a casino license.
Shadow Finance Minister David Burt followed with his own claim that the Premier had offered his company an IT contract in exchange for his support to abandon a referendum on legalizing casino gaming.
The Premier flatly denied both charges, as did his Ministers who initiated legal action when the two Opposition figures repeated them days later in public without the benefit of parliamentary privilege.
Cannonier has since declined to discuss the issue with Politica, saying through his press secretary that the matter was now considered sub judice.
No comment will be given to these questions at this time as currently there are Parliamentary questions outstanding to which the principle of sub judice has been applied,” the Premier’s press secretary said in an email.
When the “Jetgate” row resumed during a later parliamentary session, Cannonier refused to identify DeCosta by name but conceded that the jet’s additional passenger attended the Landow meeting but his attendance was unplanned.
DeCosta’s presence at the Washington, DC meeting – on March 21, 2013 – had raised eyebrows on both sides of the table, according to Crockwell and Otitoju.
Crockwell’s unease was compounded by his sense that there seemed to be a “familiarity” between DeCosta, who is not a Bermuda Government official, and Landow, who he, the Minister, was meeting for the first time.
I made it abundantly clear to DeCosta and to the gentlemen in DC that that’s not appropriate. Any communications has to be with my Ministry,” Crockwell told Politica.
“I don’t even have contact with the prospective developers. We hired a consultant [Ronald Sutherland] who does all of the contact and conversations and correspondence and the like.”
The Tourism Ministry first issued an RFP for the Club Med property to Landow and Peter Angelos, owner of the US Major League Baseball team Baltimore Orioles, in the fall of 2013, but decided to expand the opportunity to others shortly after.
(Sutherland, a US-based real estate advisor whose Hemisphere Group has been involved in developing, managing or advising on resort developments throughout the Caribbean, was hired to oversee the process for the second Club Med RFP which was issued in January 2014 and dead-lined March 31, 2014. He did not respond to email and telephone messages.)
Landow has noted to associates that he is on very good terms with “the consultant” hired by the Tourism Minister, according to Otitoju.
Otitoju also told us the Premier introduced Landow to Carl Bazarian, another US developer who failed in a years-long bid to develop the Club Med site.
Bazarian’s potential partnership with Landow was initially revealed by Cannonier himself in a July 2013 interview with this reporter for the island’s daily newspaper The Royal Gazette.
“I believe he has contacted the potential investors we had seen on the private jet some time ago,” the Premier said. In comments which went unreported at the time, Cannonier added that Bazarian had an “advantage” over other potential developers because of his familiarity with the site and the processes involved.
(We’ve since learned – from Landow himself – that he decided not to partner with Bazarian on the east end development opportunity.)
While Cannonier has denied any involvement in the Bazarian-Landow approach, Otitoju told us that a meeting occurred between Cannonier, Landow, Bazarian and DeCosta shortly after the “Jetgate” affair.
We left several messages for Carl Bazarian but he did not return our telephone calls.
DeCosta refused to speak with us for this story. But a local source close to DeCosta’s business dealings corroborated our information that he attended a meeting with Bazarian, Cannonier and Landow in Washington, DC. We agreed to the local source’s request for anonymity because he feared a sensitive business relationship with the Government of Bermuda might be jeopardized if named.
He (Bazarian) came to Maryland to me. But I don’t recall how. I don’t recall how we spoke. It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to him. So I don’t recall,” said Landow.
Told that we had been informed he was introduced to Bazarian by the Premier, Landow said: “That I know is not a fact. Okay? So there’s information that you’re getting I’m sure that is not accurate and that is one of the statements that you’ve made that is not accurate.”
DeCosta’s role is unclear, but Otitoju insists that he travelled with the Premier to Washington, DC on a number of occasions before the “Jetgate” trip, and has been there since.
Steve’s everywhere. In this country we call him the bag man,” Otitoju said.
Landow, an octogenarian with interests including casino gaming and real estate, could not, or would not, confirm having met Mr. DeCosta.
We met with a lot of people. I don’t recall everyone that we met with,” the developer said when asked if he met with Steven DeCosta when the three cabinet ministers were flown to DC in March 2013.
But he did reveal that other meetings had occurred since March 2013.
I’ve met with a few others. I can’t recall the names but they are associated with the committee that’s looking into the picture of development there. Very nice people and we seem to get along just fine.”
We asked both Tourism Minister Shawn Crockwell and Premier Cannonier whether there had been any official Government meetings with the Landow group since “Jetgate”.
Crockwell, the lead Minister on Government’s gaming initiative, said his only contact with Landow since the “Jetgate” affair was a trip last year to inform him of Government’s tendering process on the Club Med site.
He added that there had not been any other official contact with Landow.
Cannonier’s response to our query was that he was not aware of any other official contact since the March 2013 meeting.
Cannonier was also asked specifically – on February 14 – whether he had met with Landow on his most recent trip to Washington to attend the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6.
Oh my goodness. I don’t know what Landow does man,” was his response. “I didn’t see him there. No, I didn’t see him there. I was only there for one day, the prayer breakfast.”
Two Washington insiders offered a different version of events. One told us that the Premier and Landow met “briefly” while the other said the two had dinner.
Landow offered another account of his encounter with the Premier.
“No I didn’t meet with him. I saw him at the Hilton. I was down at a meeting and there was something going on there – a prayer breakfast, I think – I saw him there with a bunch of other people, I said ‘hi’ and that was about it.”
Another curiosity is that Landow’s Gulfstream made three trips to the Island in 2013 before he sent his jet to pick up the three Ministers.
Mandatory flight plan filings show that the jet was on Bermuda soil for less than half a day on each of those trips.
The shortest trip was on February 16 when the G200 landed at Bermuda’s only airport at 1:46 pm and left at 2:39 pm.
It returned to the island on February 21 at 9:45 am and left at 2:33 pm. Its third visit that year was on March 11, arriving at 9:56 am and leaving at 12:05 pm. Landow, it appears, was on at least one of those flights.
Nine days later it returned to the island and picked up the Premier, the Attorney General, the Minister of Tourism and Steven DeCosta, bringing them back two days later on March 22.
We received reports – from local and DC sources – that a meeting occurred between Landow and Cannonier in early 2013 at L.F. Wade International Airport, but we were unable to find any hard evidence of this. Otitoju reported that Landow told associates that he was heading to Bermuda to meet with the Premier.
I was only there once in the last ten years, I think,” said Landow on February 11 when we asked him when he was last in Bermuda.
“I came in and took a ride up on the hill there for about ten minutes and got back on my plane and left and came home. But it was beautiful, the weather was very nice.”
His recollection was that his brief visit occurred “maybe six months” earlier. But the jet has not been at LF Wade Airport since March 22, 2013 when it dropped off the four guests from Bermuda.
Otitoju also reported that contact between Cannonier and Landow predates the December 2012 election and that talks with the developer about the Club Med site had taken place well before the March 2013 meeting (characterized by the Premier as an “exchange of information” session).
The year 2012 started with a blow for Landow when it was announced that his bid to build a casino in Maryland had been rejected by authorities there.
It was widely reported at the time that the state’s gaming regulators were not satisfied that Landow’s group could come up with the financing required.
And a background investigation into the proposal to build a casino at the state owned Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf resort left regulators unclear about the identity of the principals behind the applicant – Landow Partners LLC, a company formed just a year earlier and represented as solely owned by Nathan Landow.
Landow declared himself “disappointed” by the state’s decision to reject the bid, according to the January 13, 2012 online edition of the Baltimore Sun.
Just over two years later, Landow’s perspective of the matter has apparently shifted.
We weren’t turned down. We had considered a proposal to go in on a bid for Maryland for one particular location. But when all of the details came out we were no longer interested,” he told us in March this year.
It is unclear whether Landow had already met Cannonier when the Rocky Gap bid was rejected.
Otitoju reported that Landow had been pushing the Premier to abandon plans for a referendum on legalizing casino gaming in Bermuda – promised by both parties during the 2012 election campaign – and Cannonier informed the developer that he had done just that when the two met in early February 2014, the source reported.
Government’s decision not to pursue the referendum was announced on December 13, 2013 by Cannonier who claimed that the Opposition party had threatened to undermine it.
But just three days before Landow’s jet touched down on Bermuda for the first time in February 2013 – and barely two months after assuming office – Cannonier was telling Bermuda’s daily newspaper that his administration may well renege on the referendum promise.
It’s always politically safe to say we’ll go to referendum and let the people decide. But is that really in the best interests of the country?” he told The Royal Gazette on February 13, 2013.
But weeks earlier, Cabinet had already debated whether to abandon the referendum promise and decided to go ahead as promised.
Crockwell’s special advisor Corey Butterfield had written an advisory paper in advance of that debate which warned of “seismic ramifications” if Government abandoned the referendum.
The advice begins with a reference to Government’s “intention” to legalise gaming and “forgoing a Platform-pledged Referendum on the issue.”
But Crockwell has denied that Government ever intended to abandon the referendum, saying he requested advice because of local and political pressure to legislate casino gaming without polling the public on the issue.
Landow, who would later claim that he does not monitor developments on the island and was not aware of any controversy over gaming in Bermuda, told us that aborting the referendum is “probably a good decision”.
I think that’s a plus for the Island. I think there’s probably a general consensus that Bermuda needs something like that in conjunction with further development. It’s probably a good decision.”
Landow continually downplayed his interest in Bermuda in our conversations – on March 26, just six days before the deadline to respond to Government’s RFP for the Club Med property – he told us he had not decided on whether he would send in a proposal.
But Otitoju was insistent that he was keen to invest and had his eyes set on the former Club Med site.
This was partly corroborated by another, reluctant, source with knowledge of the links between Landow and Cannonier who insisted on not being named in this story because of perceived reputational risks if named in any story about “allegations of corruption”.
I think that Craig has made some mis-statements as it relates to his knowing and involvement with Nate Landow. For some reason he did that, which was dumb because Nate Landow is the type of person who would want to do business with Bermuda – and that’s a big deal.”
That source also corroborated claims by the Tourism Minister and the Attorney General that they had not met Landow before the “Jetgate” trip as well as Otitoju’s information that Cannonier had met the developer before the 2012 election.
Landow, said to be worth around half a billion dollars, had been courted as a possible development partner for Bermuda, the source continued.
I know for a fact that Mark Pettingill, and Shawn Crockwell didn’t even know the guy. And I know for a fact that when they found out Steven DeCosta was going to be on that plane they hit the roof. They weren’t the only ones that hit the roof. Why Steve was on that plane, I have no idea,” the source said.
“Craig is the one that brought him (DeCosta) in for some reason. And so what started off as I think legitimate got real quirky.”
Not only is Landow keenly interested in having a casino in Bermuda, he was also repeatedly reassured – by Cannonier – that he will be successful, according to Otitoju.
That could not be corroborated – and it’s hard to see how anyone could deliver on such a promise without corrupting the two processes involved. Landow would first have to enter and win the Club Med bidding process, and then the St. George’s property would have to be given a casino license under a separate and, according to the Tourism Minister, an as yet undetermined process.
Yet to be explained by Government, however, is how and why Finance Minister Bob Richards’ February 21 Budget Statement contained what he and the Premier later explained away as a “mistake” – that the Gaming Authority which would hand out casino licenses is to be “appointed by and answerable to the Premier”.
This is not correct. The Gaming Authority will have a significant degree of independence from Government and will not be answerable to the Premier or any Cabinet Ministers.
“In addition, there is no Ministerial involvement with the grant of a license or appeal to the Minister regarding a decision of the Authority,” a statement from the Department of Communication and Information reads.
We made repeated requests to DCI for an outline of the annual process for preparing budget statements, and asked how the “mistake” was made but no answers were given.
We also asked for an update on the work of the Cabinet level subcommittee on gaming – consisting of the Premier, the Tourism Minister, the Finance Minister and the Economic Development Minister – but that was also ignored.
A disturbing account has emerged of the “Jetgate” four’s last moments on US soil after meeting with Landow and his associates in March 2013.
Take off was delayed at Dulles Jet Center, a Landow owned facility, because Cannonier and the developer were engaged in conversation in a separate room from the rest of the group.
These “side conversations”, said Otitoju, had been a source of irritation for others at the meeting a day earlier.
No one will ever know what precise words were exchanged between the pair as the Gulfstream waited for its passengers to embark, but within minutes of takeoff, an alarmed Nathan Landow was telling his associates that the Premier of Bermuda had asked him for $2 million facilitation money.
He said he needed it for marketing the issue – to sell it to the House as he put it,” said Otitoju.
“No one’s giving him $2 million.”
We’ve been made to understand that Pettingill, Crockwell and at least one OBA adviser were informed of this conversation.
Their reaction was “shock, dismay – much more so Shawn [Crockwell] than Mark [Pettingill]. It didn’t surprise Mark,” Otitoju said. .
Confronted by Politica, the OBA adviser would not confirm any specifics but said that Cannonier had been counseled to “stay away” from Landow and avoid further contact when he heard the developer was saying “bad things” about him.
Crockwell, who was singled out by Otitoju as being “disgusted” with the Premier, was also reluctant to confirm any specifics arguing that any such information would be coming from a third party.
Mr. Landow did not raise those concerns,” said Crockwell. Pressed on whether concerns were raised by others on the Washington, DC side, the Minister said he “would prefer not to answer that question.”
Pettingill declined an opportunity to provide on the record comments for this story.
As it turned out, Landow’s Bermuda casino dreams have been deferred. The developer found a last minute partner for the Club Med bid in Sol Kerzner, a South African magnate with casino interests in Cape Town and the Caribbean, including the famed Atlantis resort in the Bahamas.
But the new partnership needed more time to craft a proposal and the Tourism Ministry turned down the developer’s request for an extension to the March 31 deadline.
Cannonier had made a positive first impression when he made the rounds on the Washington power circuits.
When I first met Cannonier, I thought he was great. I thought he was going to be a breath of fresh air. I mean throughout these islands, these little nation countries, its almost stereotypically corrupt,” Otitoju said.
“And I really thought that this was different. It had the English flavor. This guy went to school here in Maryland. But no, it was shock.
“He was so smooth. The guy is very smooth – you got to hand it to him. Other than the $300,000 that they raised politically for the OBA, there was never any talk of money until that fateful meeting in DC.”
Our inquiries have not surfaced any evidence of cash transfers from Nathan Landow or his associates to anyone in the Bermuda Government.
What is clear from our inquiries is that Cannonier kept key members of the OBA and his own advisers in the dark about the full extent of his relationship with Landow, and ignored their advice and questions about Steven DeCosta’s role – a situation that continues to incense and bewilder OBA advisers.
Hollis told us that when “Jetgate” broke in the summer of 2013, the Premier would not reveal Landow’s identity when asked, saying he preferred to keep it confidential and later told his party that the talks with the developer had not come to fruition.
He added that he would be surprised if it emerged that Cannonier and Landow had met in 2012, months before “Jetgate”, as he had only authourised one official overseas trip during the election campaign – an intensive media training weekend in New York.
Cannonier has declined to fully answer questions raised within the OBA even after the matter was hotly debated in parliament.
For his part, Otitoju declared himself shocked that there has not been a full investigation into the dealings between Landow and Cannonier.
I don’t know why the Attorney General hasn’t asked for a full investigation into this. It’s crazy. They almost took Clinton down for a blow-job in this country. And we’re talking about what looks like a bribe. And nobody has any interest in looking into it?”
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