NY casino license wars spark a battle between Nassau County and Hofstra University

As a high-stakes competition unfolds for one of New York’s coveted casino licenses, an unusual struggle is emerging between Nassau County officials and Hofstra University.

The private college in Hempstead has come out firmly against a plan backed by Las Vegas Sands to build a casino at the site of the nearby Nassau Coliseum. A lawsuit by Hofstra stopped a lease transfer that left the bid in limbo.

But the dispute took a dramatic and unexpected turn this week when Nassau County accused Hofstra of “colluding” with a rival bid for a casino in Queens backed by New York Mets owner Steve Cohen and Hard Rock.

Officials subpoenaed university president Susan Poser to testify in front of the Nassau legislature and turn over all communications between people associated with Hofstra and Cohen, Hard Rock and several other corporations.

“The impropriety of the subpoenas is egregious,” Hofstra said in court documents, looking to throw out the subpoenas. “The subpoenas constitute a blatant effort to harass with no basis in law.”

In court filings, Hofstra accused local lawmakers of stepping beyond their authority and trying to circumvent the judicial process. They slammed the move as a “transparent” attempt by local lawmakers to “retaliate” against the university in the ongoing casino dispute.

The legal skirmish revolves around an agreement bidders for one of New York’s casino licenses must sign that says: “No attempt has been made or will be made by the applicant to induce any other person or entity to submit or not to submit an application or supplement to an application for the purpose of restricting competition.”

Hofstra is not an applicant for a license.

But the college has been sharply at odds with the county over the high-stakes Sands casino bid. Last spring, Hofstra filed a lawsuit seeking to block it, saying the county had denied them sufficient opportunity to provide feedback on a lease transfer for the site. A lower court state judge sided with Hofstra in the fall and annulled the 99-year lease agreement, leading Nassau to appeal.

In the latest escalation, county officials charged Wednesday that Hofstra had coordinated with Cohen’s office and Hard Rock to block the rival bid from Las Vegas Sands on Long Island.

Hard Rock has rejected the claim.

“It is ironic and disingenuous that Hofstra has been calling for transparency and is now trying to duck out of a hearing to explain their relationship with Hard Rock, its affiliates, subsidiaries and related groups,” Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said Thursday in a statement. “What does a Hofstra have to hide?”

The state is expected to award three downstate licenses, but competition is fierce as two of the downstate licenses are expected to go to existing “racinos” in Yonkers and South Ozone, Queens. In New York City there are five contenders in Midtown Manhattan, one in the Bronx at Ferry Point, the Queens proposal by Cohen and one in Brooklyn by Coney Island.

Hofstra managed to delay the county’s subpoena until next month, but a judge ruled late Friday the university has to provide the answers county officials are looking for.

Blakeman cited a recent Newsday column that described a lobbyist in an email exchange with Cohen’s asset management firm and Hard Rock planning to check with Hofstra if it will oppose a recent development.

The university president denied contact with casino bidders outside of Nassau, according to the column.

“No evidence was offered at the press conference of such communication or of any improper conduct by Hofstra University,” a lawyer for Hofstra said in court documents, “yet great effort was taken to malign Hofstra University and announce the issuance of subpoenas to it.”

With Tim Balk and Téa Kvetenadze