BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts gambling regulators said Thursday that Mohegan Sun had cleared a required background check and could continue its pursuit of a resort casino in the town of Palmer.
The five-member gaming commission voted unanimously to qualify the Connecticut casino operator, saying agency investigators working with state police had not uncovered any factors that would disqualify the company from bidding.
Mohegan Sun is the first would-be operator of a regional resort casino in Massachusetts to be deemed suitable as part of the panel's two-phase application process. The company must clear one remaining hurdle - a Nov. 5 town referendum - before it can bid for the sole western Massachusetts casino license allowed under the state's 2011 gambling law.
Mohegan Sun would likely compete for the license with MGM Resorts International, which has proposed a casino in Springfield. The commission's background checks of MGM and other casino applicants are ongoing.
Also Thursday, the commission announced that Penn National Gaming had cleared a background check and could move forward in a bid to open a slots parlor at the Plainridge harness race track in Plainville.
Penn National is expected to file a formal application with the commission by Friday's deadline for slots-only gambling facilities, as are two other companies with proposals in Raynham and Leominster.
The commission said its review of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, several affiliated companies and investment partner Brigade Capital Management did not turn up any serious criminal or civil cases, improper political contributions or major regulatory violations.
According to the investigative report, Mohegan and its affiliates were found to "have the requisite financial stability, availability of suitable financial resources, integrity and responsibility, and have demonstrated sound business experience, good character and personal integrity."
"Our ability to transition from tribal to commercial had a lot to do with our level of compliance and the way we operate in Connecticut and the way we operate everywhere," said Mitchell Etess, chief executive of the tribal gaming authority.
Mohegan Sun opened its Connecticut casino in 1995 and now also manages casinos at Pocono Downs in Plains Township, Pa., and in Atlantic City, N.J.
The commission's vote clears the way for Mohegan to move into the next phase of its pursuit of a $1 billion casino and entertainment development in Palmer, Etess told reporters after Thursday's vote.
Mohegan Sun's revenue has fallen from a high of $10.62 billion in the 2006-07 Connecticut fiscal year to $7.63 billion in the fiscal year that ended last June 30. That's a 28 percent decline in six years due to tougher competition in the Northeast, primarily New York, and the weak economic recovery.
But Etess said he did not believe the region had reached a saturation point for casino gambling and that the Massachusetts investment would be a good one.
Penn National purchased an option to buy Plainridge after the track's current owner, Ourway Realty, was disqualified by the commission when a background check turned up alleged financial improprieties.
The commission qualified Penn National after looking into questions concerning some executives of the Wyomissing, Pa.-based firm, including Steven Snyder, senior vice president of corporate development, who was the subject of a three-year investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Snyder agreed in 2001 to pay about $300,000 in penalties to settle the case and was not criminally charged.
Snyder was candid in his explanation of the SEC matter and appeared to be a "person of character, gaming commission investigators wrote in their report.
Associated Press writer Stephen Singer in Hartford contributed to this report.