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Ernani DeAraujo, former city official, calls on Suffolk Downs for transparency

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  March 20, 2013 10:44 AM

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Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com
Ernani DeAraujo.

A former City of Boston official has waded into the controversy over a $1 billion resort casino proposed by Suffolk Downs in partnership with Caesar’s Entertainment.

Ernani DeAraujo, who left his position as East Boston coordinator in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services at the end of 2012 to become general counsel and compliance manager at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, posted an open letter to the thoroughbred track from his Facebook account late Monday afternoon.

DeAraujo, 31, called on Suffolk Downs to fully disclose how much money it is spending on marketing the casino proposal to neighborhood residents, who under state gaming law will vote in a referendum to accept or reject the casino plan.

DeAraujo also suggested setting a voluntary spending cap for the effort, recommending a $500,000 limit, which he described as “about what a very competitive local election would cost and … more than enough for the casino to get out its message.”

While the gaming law allows casino proponents unlimited spending to rally support for their plans, DeAraujo wrote, “Dumping hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars into our neighborhood for what could be a challenging political battle will only serve to obscure the significant issues that residents must weigh before voting on a casino.”

In a phone interview Tuesday, DeAraujo said without financial disclosure, the track could use campaign money to win support from non-profit groups and individual residents, and no one would know.

“It’s no secret that corruption comes with casinos,” he said. “I think Suffolk can go a long way toward mitigating that corruption by taking these steps.”

DeAraujo said neighborhood residents believe Suffolk Downs is conducting polls, organizing focus groups, and using advertising to sway voters, but it is unclear how widespread the effort is.

He and other residents have claimed Suffolk Downs has planted supporters in public meetings to counter anti-casino sentiment.

“I’ve observed it personally, and people have told me about it,” DeAraujo said of the unfamiliar casino supporters seen at recent neighborhood forums.

In a statement released Tuesday, Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, did not directly respond to that allegation, but he said the casino proposal had attracted supporters organically.

“We believe we have a sound proposal that will create thousands of jobs, improve longstanding local traffic issues, form partnerships with local businesses and spur tourism growth in the area. We have hundreds of grassroots supporters in the area who have already expressed support for our proposal based on these benefits,” Tuttle said in the statement. “These supporters attend community meetings, express themselves on social media and talk to their neighbors as they see fit.”

Tuttle said Suffolk Downs did not have a final budget for its outreach efforts but did not respond to a question about how much had been spent to date.

Of those efforts, he said, “we have participated in dozens of community meetings, sent numerous pieces of mail to keep area residents informed, and worked tirelessly to share our vision for Suffolk Downs and what it will mean to our neighbors.”

DeAraujo said people on both sides of the issue had called and e-mailed him to offer their support for his proposals, telling him the casino debate needs independent voices. He lauded a recently released community survey that said more half than of East Boston’s residents oppose the casino plan.

A lifelong East Boston resident considered by some as a future political force in the city, DeAraujo acknowledged having political ambitions but said he had no specific plans to run for office.

Like a politician, he was cautious in discussing his own views.

DeAraujo said he had done a lot of research on casinos and decided how he would vote in the referendum, and that he would not keep his vote a secret when the time comes. He declined, though, to state his position directly.

“I don’t want to be coy about my own personal feelings, but I really do … want our neighbors to wrestle with this issue on their own,” he said. “I don’t want to tell people how to feel, and I do think that’s something that’s been happening out there.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow East Boston on Twitter: @YourEastBoston.

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