The chairman of the state commission who recommended an emergency manager for Atlantic City, and has been charged with helping revitalize the city, had frequent contact with Stockton President Herman Saatkamp before, during and after the university’s purchase of the former Showboat Casino Hotel in December 2014.
Emails obtained by The Press of Atlantic City show Saatkamp frequently sought the advice and assistance of Jon Hanson, an adviser to Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment (often called the Hanson Commission), and chairman of the Hampshire Companies in Morristown.
The Press obtained the emails between Hanson and Saatkamp through an Open Public Records Act request for communication regarding Showboat or any other purchase in Atlantic City.
Most of the content of the emails is redacted, but subject lines, dates and content provided reveal Hanson as an active behind-the-scenes adviser in Stockton’s efforts to purchase Showboat. Most of the emails are just between Saatkamp and Hanson, although some are also CC’d to Saatkamp’s executive assistant Kathryn Mason.
Both Hanson and Saatkamp declined to comment on the Showboat purchase. A review of the sale commissioned by the Stockton Board of Trustees is being completed, and Hanson wrote in an email that he would comment after that report becomes public. No specific date has been given for the report’s release, though Stockton officials said it is being finalized.
Interim Stockton President Harvey Kesselman said he would not think it unusual for Saatkamp to have had contact with Hanson.
“(Hanson’s) job is to be interested in Atlantic City,” Kesselman said. “And we are a public college. A lot of political figures are interested in what we do, especially if it involves a casino.”
He said he has spoken to Hanson a couple of times since taking over the president’s job to update him about the Showboat situation.
The emails show Hanson’s involvement began at least two months before Stockton bought Showboat on Dec. 12, 2014, and that Hanson was kept up to date about the sale and reviewed documentation as the Governor’s Advisory Commission prepared its 2014 report.
That report, dated Nov. 12, is the same date Stockton and Caesars announced a letter of intent had been signed to buy Showboat. The report includes a line that “Stockton College (New University Park)” could provide additional immediate opportunities in Atlantic City.
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Plans for the proposed University Park development around Stockton were not publicly announced until the college finalized its purchase of Showboat a month later. But some concerns about deed restrictions did come up earlier.
On the morning of Dec. 6, Saatkamp sent Hanson a story in The Press that Caesars had placed a deed restriction on Showboat prohibiting its use as a casino. Hanson’s response is redacted, but Saatkamp responded he is “not worried about the deed restriction.”
Hanson responded: “We should talk: I am hearing some troubling rumors.”
Saatkamp was not concerned about Caesars’ deed restriction, since the college had no intention of operating a casino. But he also did not believe that a 1988 covenant requiring Showboat to be operated as a casino hotel would be a problem and that Caesars and Trump Taj Mahal would reach an agreement to release it.
Saatkamp continued to move forward with plans to open Showboat as an Island Campus by summer until Trump Entertainment CEO Robert Griffin notified Saatkamp in March that his company would enforce the covenant.
That led to a stalemate that has left Stockton unable to use Showboat, which is again up for sale. Stockton officials said this week that there is interest in the site, and a special closed session meeting of the Board of Trustees was held Monday to discuss proposals.
Hanson also was involved in advising Stockton on an effort to get $17 million from the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority to convert Showboat to classroom space and offices.
CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri said this week that the authority solicits Hanson’s point of view on a variety of city issues.
“He has been helpful on a lot of initiatives,” he said.
Palmieri said funding could still be available to assist Stockton with another project in the city. Stockton has been approached to be part of the proposed Gateway Project at the end of Albany Avenue, but Kesselman has said that while the university is committed to helping revive Atlantic City, the Showboat issue must be resolved first.
SAATKAMP/HANSON SHOWBOAT TIMELINE
Oct. 14, 2014: Jon Hanson emails Stockton University President Herman Saatkamp asking “Will we have an offer today?” Saatkamp responds that he expects it the next day and asks “Do I send it to you?”
The two are again in touch Oct. 15 and 16, but the content of the emails is redacted.
Oct. 17, 2014: Hanson, Saatkamp and Caesars Entertainment personnel are among those CC’d on an email from an attorney for Caesars that includes a Letter of Intent to purchase Showboat and Confidential Disclosure Agreement for their review.
Oct. 28, 2014: Hanson emails Saatkamp asking whether progress has been made on the Letter of Intent. Saatkamp responds that he should have it soon and that he and Daniel Epstein, vice president of finance and strategy at Caesars, have agreed on a settlement date.
Nov. 11, 2014: Saatkamp emails Hanson saying he believes Hanson may have already worked out a press release with Caesars for the Nov. 12 Atlantic City Summit when the Showboat sale is formally announced. Hanson replies: “Tomorrow is important for AC. Your announcement is very important for AC’s future.”
Nov. 12, 2014: Saatkamp emails Hanson thanking him for his leadership and support.
Dec. 6, 2014: Saatkamp emails Hanson a copy of a Press of Atlantic City article saying Caesars has placed a deed restriction on Showboat prohibiting its use as a casino. Hanson’s response is redacted. Saatkamp replies, “ Not worried about the deed restriction. The funding is what is important. If there are more opportunities for funding that may help.”
Dec. 10, 2014: Saatkamp emails Hanson saying: “May need your assistance. Down to only one issue.” Hanson later in the afternoon responds: “I received positive feedback from Caesars who spoke to (Local 54 leader Bob) McDevitt.”
Dec. 11, 2014: Saatkamp emails Hanson that he spoke with McDevitt and Bill Jesom about Local 54 and the agreements and he hopes to have the issue settled later in the day. Stockton retained 40 Showboat maintenance and security employees who became Stockton employees after the sale.
4:09 p.m. Dec. 12, 2014: Saatkamp emails Hanson: “Just signed the last forms for the purchase agreement. One more step before formal closing. Cannot thank you enough. Hope you are pleased.”
5:23 p.m. Dec. 12: Hanson writes back: “Congratulations: we now need to make sure that you can open for the Fall semester. Let me know how we can help?”
5:24 p.m. Dec. 12: Saatkamp responds: “We just closed! We can talk next week. Cannot thank you enough.”
In January and February, Hanson and Saatkamp continued to email about Showboat’s conversion and efforts to get $17 million in CRDA funds for the new Island Campus.
But in March, problems develop.
March 4: Hanson emails Saatkamp about a “Trump Taj Use Covenant,” but the email content and Saatkamp’s response are redacted. Stockton CEO for External Affairs Sharon Schulman notifies Saatkamp that The Press has also inquired about the covenant. Saatkamp, who has said he believed the 1988 covenant was being released, responds: “The only deed restriction is not having a casino, and that is not an issue.”
March 13: Trump Entertainment CEO Robert Griffin sends a letter to Saatkamp saying the company will not release the 1988 covenant. Saatkamp forwards it to Hanson. Saatkamp and Hanson email several times over the next several days, but content is redacted.
March 24: Saatkamp sends a memo to Stockton faculty and staff about the stalemate with Taj Mahal and says there is a verbal offer from another buyer.
An emergency meeting that includes several Atlantic City officials is set up for March 25. On March 26, Saatkamp contacts Hanson to arrange a time to talk. On March 27, they exchange emails with the subject line “Atlantic Club,” but the content is redacted.
April 2: A short email from Hanson’s company to Saatkamp contains the subject line “Carl Icahn office telephone #,“ but content is redacted. On April 3, Saatkamp announces a deal to sell Showboat to developer Glenn Straub, and on April 22, Saatkamp resigns as president of Stockton.
April 26: Hanson sends an email to Saatkamp with the subject line “Difficult week.” It says: “I know this past week has been very difficult for you. If you need a ‘sounding board’ please feel free to reach out to me. Best regards. JFH.”