Gambler sues casino over his downfall

Casino Niagara: Former high roller says limousine sent to entice him back

Tuesday, October 14, 2003 - The Canadian Press

By Heather Sokoloff - National Post

©Copyright 2003 National Post

A lawsuit says former Copps Coliseum boss Gabe Macaluso led a double life as a business executive on the one hand and a compulsive gambler at Casino Niagara, above, on the other.

A high-profile Hamilton official who lost his job to a gambling addiction is suing the Ontario government and Casino Niagara for allegedly sending a limousine to take him back to the blackjack tables following a $500,000 loss.

Gabe Macaluso, former chief executive of Copps Coliseum, Hamilton Place and the Hamilton Convention Centre, lost $1-million over five years while he suffered what he calls a "secret, pathological" addiction to gambling.

Mr. Macaluso joins a small but growing number of recovered gambling addicts in Ontario and Quebec who have filed lawsuits demanding government-run casinos stop them from ruining their lives.

Mr. Macaluso filed the $3-million lawsuit at Hamilton's Superior Court last week, naming the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., which oversees the province's $2-billion gambling industry and Falls Management, the company that runs Casino Niagara. The allegations remain to be proven in court.

As head of Hamilton's city-owned entertainment complexes, Mr. Macaluso dined with celebrities such as Celine Dion, Elton John, Shania Twain and Bono from U2. He earned a six-figure salary, had the use of a company car and regularly jetted off to meetings in Milan, Hong Kong and Paris. An active community member, he was elected a trustee for the Catholic school board and attempted a run at provincial office.

"I had it all," he said. "It all came crashing down on me."

The lawsuit describes Mr. Macaluso's double life, which began in 1997. He spent his free evenings at the high-rollers table at Casino Niagara, telling his wife and three teenaged children his demanding job kept him at the office.

He was assigned a personal "account executive hostess" who he says catered to his every desire by rewarding his losses with hockey tickets, hotel rooms, invitations to VIP lounges and gala dinners.

He was allowed to gamble on credit at the baccarat tables, the lawsuit alleges. His profanities toward other gamblers and casino staff were tolerated.

In May 2001, a casino manager heard Mr. Macaluso say he was going home to kill himself as he stumbled away from the high-rollers table, despondent over a string of losses totalling more than $500,000.

The casino called the police, and two suicide-prevention officers knocked on his door moments after he returned home to see how he was doing. The men left after Mr. Macaluso assured them he would not take his life.

The casino called later that day to say he was prohibited from entering and would be charged with trespassing if he returned, according to court documents.

"They told me that a casino was a place of entertainment. It was not a place to augment one's salary or fulfill one's materialistic dreams," Mr. Macaluso said.

Barred from the casino and facing mounting debts, Mr. Macaluso told his wife, a registered nurse, everything about his secret life. He felt unburdened. Together the couple started paying off bills and reducing their debt.

However, although he says he was "on the road to recovery," he was still gambling at other establishments, though on a much-reduced basis, the lawsuit alleges.

But two-and-a-half months later, a Casino Niagara hostess called to say the ban had been lifted and there would be no conditions placed on his reinstatement. The garrulous CEO was missed by casino employees. His words about taking his life were "water under the bridge."

A limousine was sent that evening to take him to the casino, Mr. Macaluso said, and his platinum players card was returned.

Mr. Macaluso, who still believed he could control his gambling habit, went back to the high-rollers table in August 2001. A year later, he had lost more than $1-million. He stopped going home. He again decided to kill himself so his family could collect on his life insurance policy. He needed only to figure out a way to tell his wife and children he was sorry without leaving a suicide note.

"I had creditors hounding me and was victim to countless rumours flying around town of my reckless borrowing habits from friends, family and neighbours," Mr. Macaluso said. "I had no esteem left. I felt worthless.... I was ashamed and embarrassed that my secret would soon be known to everyone."

A lifelong friend, Peter Mercanti, intervened, dragging Mr. Macaluso away from the casino and sitting him down at a diner in the middle of the night to talk him out of killing himself.

His friend outlined a plan for Mr. Macaluso to consolidate his debts under bankruptcy protection and enter treatment.

He immediately enrolled in a 10-day outpatient program at a private clinic and started attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

The public disclosure led to his firing as CEO of Hamilton Entertainment and Convention Facilities Inc. after irregularities were found at the corporation.

Mr. Macaluso continues to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings and study in a Bible group. He is getting his finances in order, although he may still lose his home. "Second chances in life are extremely precious and I, for one, will not squander it," he said.

Two other multi-million-dollar lawsuits filed this year allege Ontario casinos egged on compulsive gamblers with free limousines, meals and other perks after signing agreements requiring them to turn the plaintiffs away at the door.

In separate actions, Constantin Digalakis, a real estate broker, and Lisa Dickert, who lost her job because of her addiction to charity casinos, allege they easily entered casinos after voluntarily enrolling themselves in programs that were supposed to bar problem gamblers from entry.

In Quebec, more than 500 people have joined a class-action lawsuit filed by Jean Brochu, a Quebec City lawyer who lost $100,000 to video lottery terminals, alleging the warnings on the machines do little to mitigate their addictive effect.

Joe Vecsi, a spokesman for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., would not comment on the lawsuit, but noted the province contributes 2% of gross revenues, or at least $10-million, from charity casinos, race track operations and casinos to a problem gambling program administered by the Ministry of Health.