Appeals Court foils Las Vegan’s
chance at another big score

Dec 5, 2006 4:11 AM

I am not Shawn Scott’s biographer, but the guy, operating out of Vegas and the Virgin Islands, continues to make news. He is perhaps the most intriguing of all the fascinating characters roaming Vegas.

Depending on whom you ask, he is either the slickest of the snake oil vendors or the smartest of the gambling entrepreneurs, either a rogue and a charlatan or a charming and handsome young promotional genius.

He has, of course, made millions in out-of-the-way places you didn’t learn in fourth grade geography: Vinton, Louisiana; Vernon, New York; Bangor, Maine.

Scott not only found them, but turned them from pedestrian dots on the map onto gold mines for himself. Although he did not invent racinos — the Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona, Iowa, outside of Des Moines, was operating long before he arrived on the national scene — Scott was the man who saw clearly that underperforming racetracks could be bought cheap and sold high, and he knew how to get it done.

His Louisiana venture was his first big score, buying run-down Delta Downs for $10 million, single-handedly getting the Louisiana legislature to legalize slots at the track, and then selling it for $100 or $110 million to another Vegas entrepreneur, Boyd Gaming.

In New York state, where his associates and adventures did not pass muster, he bought Vernon Downs, another distressed track, sold it, tried to buy it back, and then after a bitter battle bowed to Jeff Gural, a highly successful New York City real estate man and harness horse breeder and owner, who partnered with the oddly named Nevada Gold, out of Texas. The fight cost Gural millions and made them for Scott, and he moved on to Maine.

There he picked up little Bangor Raceway for $2 or $3 million, repeated his Louisiana success of getting the state to legalize slots at the track, and sold it for $50 million or so to Penn National Gaming.

Then, having scored smashing successes in small towns, Scott turned to the big time, the nation’s capital.

Operating from his Virgin Island base, he put together a team that knew Foggy Bottom well, sending out squads of petition signers for a referendum to legalize slots in Washington, DC. He almost pulled it off, and might have except for a lady named Dorothy Brizill, a community activist, and her two allies, Thelma Jones and Anthony Muhammad.

In June of this year, a Superior Court judge, Judith E. Retchin, rejected their argument, opening the way for Scott. The Brizill group appealed her decision, and on Sept. 21 the matter was argued before a three-man Court of Appeals, the District of Columbia’s highest court.

Two weeks ago the appeals tribunal handed down its decision, reversing the Superior Court judge and ending Scott’s carefully laid assault on Washington, at least for the foreseeable future.

The appeals justices said Ms. Brizill and her friends were correct in their contention that the matter had been decided 55 years ago, when Congress passed the Johnson Act of 1951, barring gambling devices in Washington. They ruled that only Congress can authorize such gambling in the capital, and that the Johnson Act precluded any referendum on the matter. "Neither the (District of Columbia) Council nor the voters through initiative may amend or repeal this Congressional prohibition on using and possessing gambling devices in the District of Columbia," the court said.

Scott and his well-placed Washington allies had planned their first casino in one of the poorest of Washington’s eight wards, Anacostia, and Anthony Muhammad, one of Dorothy Brizill’s activist partners, happens to be a Ward 8 advisory commissioner in the neighborhood.

He spoke the final words for Anacostia: "It’s really a victory not just for our ward," he said, "but for the whole city."