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2 Investigators, BGA: Casino Treats Joliet Officials To VIP Cards

(CBS) -- Elected officials in Joliet have been getting free VIP cards from a local casino for 20 years, a Better Government Association Investigation with CBS's Pam Zekman found.

It's not illegal, but it's a bad bet, the BGA says.

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Better Government Association logo. (Credit: BGA)

Big gamblers can get some big perks at most casinos. For example, someone who wagers up to $75,000 on slot machines can accumulate enough credits at Harrah's Casino in Joliet to get a "Diamond Card."

It's basically a VIP pass that is good at 40 locations operated around the country by Harrah's owner, Caesar's Entertainment Corp. based in Las Vegas.

The Diamond Card enables recipients to receive perks at the casino, ranging from access to an exclusive lounge that offers free food, to discounts at other restaurants and the gift shop.

Joliet's city council members and mayor Tom Giarrante have been issued Diamond cards, even though they are not high rollers.

"I see absolutely nothing wrong with it," the mayor said.

Five of the current city council members say they've also used the card and it has never influenced their decisions.

The city ethics code says employees cannot accept gifts from people or entities they regulate, but Giarrante denies that accepting and using the Diamond Card violates the code.

One government watchdog group disagrees.

"It's a conflict of interest," says Andrew Schroedter of the Better Government Association. "If they're receiving gifts and perks from a big casino it undermines their ability to oversee or regulate the casino in the best interest of the people."

Joliet city officials vote on zoning and redevelopment plans and liquor licenses. In 2011, the mayor testified favorably for the Illinois Gaming Board to renew Harrah's gaming license.

Giarrante says he told the board Harrah's is one of the biggest employers in Joliet and gets involved with charities and sports activities.

He says the VIP treatment doesn't influence him.

"If they have done something wrong, I'm not going to hide it," Giarrante says. "I'm not going to perjure myself or lie, I'm going to be honest with the Gaming Board."

Five of the current city council members say they've also used the card for restaurant discounts or the Diamond Lounge, which provides guests with free food, coffee and non-alcoholic drinks. It has a cash bar.

Councilman Don Fisher did not return calls. Council member John Gerl could not recall getting the card. Both Gerl and Councilman Larry Hug said they've never visited Harrah's.

Hug says he never asked for a Diamond Card, it just came last year in the office mail. But now he plans to give it back.

"It certainly does give at least the appearance of impropriety, and that in and of itself should be reason to discontinue the practice," Hug says.

Giarrante, the mayor, had a different perspective.

"What am I supposed to do, shred it or give it back to them. I didn't, no," he says.

Gene O'Shea, a spokesman for The Illinois Gaming Board, said there is nothing in current regulations that prohibits handing out VIP passes like the Diamond card to local politicians.

He adds: "We don't think it is the greatest of business practices."

None of the nine other licensed casinos do it, O'Shea said.

Gary Thompson, a spokesman for Caesars Entertainment, says the cards were given out when Harrah's first opened and long before Caesars owned it.

He says Caesars just continued giving them out each year not to influence politicians, but "as a courtesy."

"We are taking a look at the practice and we will probably be ending it because it apparently does not look good," Thompson says.

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