Falconer’s 13 meetings with casino group - Monday 27th of November 2006

LORD FALCONER was yesterday dragged into a dispute over plans for a supercasino at the Millennium Dome when it emerged he had met representatives of the American billionaire behind the venture 13 times.

One of the meetings came on the eve of the government’s white paper on gambling reform which paved the way for the opening of Las Vegas-style casinos in Britain.

Documents obtained by The Sunday Times under the Freedom of Information Act also show that Falconer flew to Los Angeles for talks with Philip Anschutz soon after Anschutz’s company announced its desire to open a casino at the dome site in Greenwich, southeast London.

Opposition MPs are demanding to know whether Falconer, the lord chancellor and former flatmate of Tony Blair, gave any assurances to the tycoon about obtaining a gambling licence for the dome. At the time Falconer was the minister in charge of negotiating the dome’s sale.

The venue is now on a shortlist of seven locations vying for the first supercasino licence. The winner will be announced early next year.

Anschutz’s relationship with the government came under scrutiny in the summer when it emerged that John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, had stayed on the billionaire’s ranch in Colorado and had been given a cowboy outfit during his visit in 2005.

Last night Hugo Swire, the shadow culture secretary, demanded a full disclosure of Falconer’s meetings with Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG). “Yet again the government’s close relationship with AEG is being called into question,? he said.

“It is time for the government to come clean and finally address the continuing speculation over what assurances were given by ministers over a casino licence at the dome. If you tot up all the meetings Anschutz has had with Prescott, and Falconer before him, it clearly appears he has received preferential access to government.?

Prescott, who initially failed to declare the hospitality in the register of members’ interests, had ultimate ministerial responsibility for the regeneration of the dome site at the time of the Colorado trip.

The new documents show Falconer was in contact with Anschutz, who wants to turn the dome into a leisure complex, from a much earlier date. Falconer’s meetings with AEG took place between October 2001 and May 2002, when he was minister responsible for the dome and the government was desperate to get the empty building off its hands.

In May 2002 the government entered into an agreement over the Greenwich site with Meridian Delta, a consortium of companies that had linked up with AEG to redevelop the dome. Contracts were formally signed two years later.

Under the agreement, the taxpayer is still paying more than £30,000 a month for the upkeep of the dome in addition to its original cost of nearly £800m, of which £602m came from the lottery.

Officials from Meridian Delta attended nine of the 13 meetings with Falconer, although the government has refused to publish the minutes of these meetings, citing commercial confidentiality. AEG said it wanted to build a casino there as early as December 2001. At the time Tim Leiweke, the company’s president, said: “When the new dome is opened, it will be an entertainment destination that includes restaurants, casinos and bars.?

A month later Falconer flew to Los Angeles to meet Anschutz. Officials claim the two-day trip, paid for by the taxpayer, was a “fact-finding mission on urban regeneration issues?. During the visit Falconer watched ice hockey and basketball games at the Staples Center, AEG’s flagship sports and entertainment arena. Prescott visited the same venue more than two years later on a similar fact-finding tour hosted by Anschutz.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said: “There is no question any hospitality was involved. Lord Falconer stayed in a hotel in LA.?

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