Ferguson puts chips on MSU over Greektown

By Kyle Melinn

Editor's note: This story has been updated to revise information in the original version of the story that said Joel Ferguson has formally withdrawn his name from consideration for a position on the Greektown Casino's board of directors.

Joel Ferguson is choosing Michigan State green over the green being offered to serve on the Greektown Casino Board.

The chairman of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees told the Michigan Gaming Control Board this week he will not resign his position at MSU for one of seven spots overseeing one of Detroit's three casinos, a venture that would have paid him $210,000 in stock and benefits immediately and $85,000 annually for five board meetings a year. The move effectively takes him out of the running for the Greektown position barring a change of position by the gaming board or an unlikely change in state law.

Selected last summer to serve on the
Greektown Casino board, Fergusons appointment ran into a roadblock when
the casinos attorney pointed out a state law banning any elected
official from serving on a casino board.

For the last several months, Ferguson
thought he might be able to maneuver around the state law or change it
altogether. After all, appointed board members to most every other
university board, like the Eastern Michigan University board, could
serve on a casino board without an issue. Its only because MSU board
members are elected that Fergusons appointment ran into an issue.

Ferguson recently asked Attorney General Bill Schuette for clarification on the issue.

The new AG suggested Ferguson lobby for a
one-sentence change to the state casino law that would have defined a
"governmental unit" as a "county, city, township, village, or state or
federal agency or department that has regulatory or other governmental
authority over the casinos."

But Ferguson learned Greektown and
Detroits two other casinos were nervous about the Legislature opening
up the states casino law out of fear that lawmakers would insert
Detroit Mayor David Bings proposal to raise the casinos taxes 3
percentage points as a way to raise $20 million for the

Without a change in the law, the Michigan
Gaming Control Board was set in June or August to reject Fergusons
appointment to the Greektown Board if he didnt step down from the MSU
Board. Forced to make a decision, Ferguson went with MSU, even though
the position pays nothing.

"It would be hard to look my grandkids in
the eye if I chose money over where I think Im needed, especially at
this time," said Ferguson, who has been elected to the board three
times, most recently in 2004. Since his eight-year term expires at the
end of 2012, his decision suggests he plans to run for re-election.

"With budget issues and with higher ed
getting less than it used to,” he added, “the last thing we need is for
those of us who have been there awhile to bail out."

Had Ferguson, a prominent Lansing
developer and Democrat, resigned from the MSU board, it would have had
significant political implications. Gov. Rick Snyder would have been put
in the position to appointment Fergusons replacement. Snyder,
presumably, would have picked a Republican, making the MSU board a 4-4
partisan split. Vice Chairwoman Melanie Foster, a Republican, likely
would have ascended to the chair’s position.

Ferguson dismissed the partisan
implications of his decision, but did point out that at least two
prominent Democrats talked to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm before she
left office about Fergusons position if he were to step down before she
left office on Dec. 31, 2010. Sources said they were former Gov. James
Blanchard and state AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney.

It was politics that made the law that is
now thwarting Fergusons plans. Back when the Detroit casino proposal
was being developed in the mid-1990s, Ferguson applied to run one of the

Former Gov. John Engler saw an
opportunity to make an appointment on the MSU board and made sure the
law banning public officials from any business decisions at a casino was
written broadly enough to cover Ferguson, said John Truscott, Englers
former spokesman.

“We figured Joel would follow the money
so we thought wed free him from his obligation at MSU," said Truscott,
who operates a Lansing public relations firm with Kelly

The deal never went through for Ferguson, a professed casino table player, but the law did.

"So this thing came back to bite me 15 years later," Ferguson said.

Since Fergusons Greektown appointment
was publicized last summer, the prominent MSU sports booster has been
heavily lobbied to stay at Michigan State. MSU mens basketball coach
Tom Izzo even got into the act, giving Ferguson a call from the golf
course with MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis.

"Tom was saying, You cant leave,"
Ferguson said. "I said, Tom, if I think I can do both but if I have to
make a decision Ill stay without them putting yard signs all over

The reference was to the public campaign
launched only months prior to keep Izzo in East Lansing despite a
tempting offer to take a head coaching job with the Cleveland Cavaliers
in the NBA.

Even some Republicans didnt want to see
Ferguson go. "Im not shocked that hell continue to serve,” former
board member David Porteous said. “I know how much he loves and it and
how much hes making a difference."