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Casino tactics are déjà vu for many

January 19, 2012

Updated 1/20/12 11:15 AM

The backers of a proposed casino in Foxboro are being accused of using a host of aggressive tactics to force the project on local residents – everything from push polls and mailers to secret meetings with town officials.

The tactics resemble those used by Competitive Power Ventures four years ago when the company sought to build a 580-megawatt power plant on Industrial Road in Walpole.

CPV first proposed a plant in Walpole in 2007, but left town in 2008 after a year and a half of unexpectedly strong local opposition.

The Kraft Group, owner of the New England Patriots, has partnered with Las Vegas-based casino mogul Steve Wynn to propose the construction of a $1 billion casino across from Gillette Stadium on Route 1 in Foxboro. The casino would be just steps away from the South Walpole town line, and coincidentally less than a mile away from where CPV’s power plant would have been located.

Last month, The Foxboro Reporter chronicled casino push polling that appears to be taking place in Foxboro. Push polls are polls designed to influence a respondents’ viewpoint on an issue while appearing to be an objective survey. Former Foxboro Selectman Paul Feeney and his wife told the Reporter his family received two different push poll telephone calls that asked if they would support the casino project if it brought millions into the town. The callers asked “what incentives to the town [residents would] like if the casino is built,” according to the Reporter.

The poll also included, according to the Reporter, “a number of questions about the trustworthiness or ‘believability’ of town officials and residents.”

The same scenario played out in Walpole during the power plant controversy.

In 2008, CPV hired Opinion Dynamics Corp. to call Walpole residents and inquire about their views on the proposed power plant. According to The Walpole Times, then-Selectman David Sullivan said “the polling seemed to imply that selectmen might support the power plant proposal.”

Walpole residents were asked, similar to the casino poll, “about the credibility of various sources of information such as Walpole selectmen, state representatives, a Competitive Power spokesman, Daily News Transcript staff, an MIT professor and a local doctor.”

At the time, Opinion Dynamics vehemently denied the charges that they were doing a push poll, but CPV readily admitted that they were the ones who had commissioned it. If Sullivan is correct about the questions that he was asked, it certainly fits the description of a push poll.

There are other similarities between the effort for a casino and the effort for a power plant.

Shortly before a Spring 2008 Special Town Meeting at which Walpole Town Meeting Representatives voted down a controversial provision to ban businesses like power plants, CPV held a secret meeting with 30 RTMs that wasn’t disclosed until weeks later. RTM John Vaillancourt told The Walpole Times at the time that he saw the meeting as “an improper ‘behind closed doors’ gathering.” According to Vaillancourt, “around the time of [the] Town Meeting there were rumors of RTMs meeting with CPV, but everyone denied it.”

That secret meeting bears a striking resemblance to the casino-related meeting that occurred in August between officials at the Kraft group and Foxboro officials. That meeting, too, wasn’t publicly disclosed until after it occurred. The Sun Chronicle first learned of it in January, and noted that Foxboro Selectmen Larry Harrington, who had attended the meeting with the Foxboro Town Administrator, “never disclosed that meeting to the public,” even after Selectmen had taken votes regarding the issue and numerous public meetings had been held.

Wynn also flooded Foxboro with mailings in December espousing the benefits of the casino and attempting to persuade residents to support it. Almost 8,000 Foxboro homes got the mailings, according to the Reporter. CPV tried a similar ploy in Walpole when they sent out glossy mailers to all Walpole households in the week before the June 2008 town election, when a number of anti-casino candidates were elected.

The similarities in tactics used by the casino backers and the power plant firm are probably simply coincidental. CPV has no known business connections to the Kraft Group, and it seems pretty standard that if a company was seeking to put a controversial business in a particular town, they would likely use phone surveys, mailings, and meetings with officials to garner support for it.

However, there is one figure who took a prominent role with both the power plant and casino projects.

Scott Farmelant, president of Mills & Company, a public relations firm in Boston, was hired in 2007 by CPV to reach out to the public regarding the Walpole plant proposal. He was present at meetings between CPV and local groups like the Council on Aging, and was regularly quoted in news stories about the project.

Farmelant was also recently hired by the Kraft Group to help with public relations efforts related to the casino project. Oddly enough, Farmelant’s firm also counts as one of its clients the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail, which contracts with the MBTA to provide commuter rail service in the state. The MBTA is presently considering expanding commuter rail through Walpole to the casino site, which has also generated significant controversy in Walpole.

As a public relations professional, Farmelant will work for whoever hires him, so it’s not clear that his involvement is necessarily anything other than a coincidence. He did, after all, work for the Kraft Group as a spokesperson in the past. But the coincidences are quite interesting.

Farmelant did not return a phone message by press time. [Update: Farmelant said he did not want to discuss this issue on-the-record.]

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