Divergent paths lead back to Jersey

Jun 19, 2007 3:42 AM

Dennis Gomes and Kevin DeSanctis were told they had burned their bridges. "You’ll never work in this state again," a New Jersey state police captain reportedly informed them.

So much for informed insight, but that’s the way it was in the summer of 1978 as Gomes and DeSanctis left New Jersey for the far friendlier environment of Nevada.

The two men got along well. Gomes was saying recently of DeSanctis, "We’ve always been like brothers."

Gomes and his private equity partners have exclusive rights for the next week or so to negotiate for Donald Trump’s three casinos — the Taj Mahal, the Plaza and Marina. Other bidders have abandoned the purchase effort that remains filled with challenges.

DeSanctis, in the meantime, leads the development of the first major Atlantic City resort project since Borgata on 20 acres near the Showboat and Taj Mahal. It has the backing of Morgan Stanley’s money. Construction will begin during next year’s first quarter with the opening expected three years later.

Gomes had left Nevada for New Jersey in 1977 with the reputation as something of a tough, top cop following his role in a Gaming Control Board investigation that uncovered major skimming at the then-Argent casinos. His role in that often-told story provided some of the basis for the book and movie "Casino."

In New Jersey, Gomes’ special investigations team at the Division of Gaming Enforcement led a suitability review of the city’s first casino licensee that resulted in a DGE recommendation that Resorts International NOT be licensed. Among the state cops assigned to Gomes was a young uniformed state trooper, Kevin DeSanctis. They worked closely on projects such as a raid at a Resorts operation in the Bahamas.

The New Jersey Casino Control eventually disagreed with the DGE and licensed Resorts. There was some heated discussion and subsequent issues that left Gomes in conflict with his superiors at the Division. Gomes says DeSanctis backed him in arguing these issues, but the long and the short of it was that Gomes had lost his taste for working for the state of New Jersey.

Gomes turned to his friend at some point and said, look, why don’t you come back to Nevada with me. DeSanctis saw the merit in that since it was clear his chances of further promotions with the state had deteriorated to somewhere between dismal and zero.

Back in Nevada, Gomes stepped into a job running the casinos of the late Major Riddle. The best known of these was the Silverbird. It sat on the site just north of the Riviera of what will be the Fontainebleau. DeSanctis was with him.

Over much of the next decade they moved through a succession of big jobs in Howard Hughes’ Summa Corp., Hilton’s Nevada casinos and then with Steve Wynn. Gomes was running the Golden Nugget and Wynn had tapped DeSanctis to open The Mirage as its VP of casino operations.

One thing led to another.

DeSanctis fell into a conversation with Donald Trump who dangled big opportunity in front of the former state trooper. Trump put DeSanctis in charge of Trump Plaza — all of it. Time went by and DeSanctis had a chance to introduce his friend Dennis Gomes to Trump.

Gomes accepted the chance to run Trump’s Taj Mahal, possibly thinking that if he was going to return to Atlantic City, then that was the way to do it.

Both men flourished in different jobs over the next 10-15 years, DeSanctis was with Trump until he accepted top jobs with Chris Hemmeter, Sun International and then Penn National. Gomes was with Trump for about four years before moving over to Aztar where he ran the company’s Tropicanas in Las Vegas and Atlantic City for about 10 years.

The most recent force to touch the lives of each man is also reshaping the gaming industry. It is the availability of private equity money from sources that are suddenly more licensable than ever as regulators fine-tuned their ability to single out and review key decision-makers rather than entire companies.

The torrent of private equity funding, DeSanctis says, has "added a new dimension of possibilities" to the casino business.

No one recognizes that more than the two "brothers," former state employees who are weighing the likelihood they can soon be linked with a new label — casino owners, and in New Jersey of all places.