Beginner’s luck: How one video gambling company worked the odds and took over a state
Andrew Rubenstein rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange last November, then pumped his fist and cheered. He had much to celebrate. In a decade, the company he founded and led, Illinois-based Accel Entertainment, had grown from a tiny startup into the largest video gambling operator in the nation. Accel had also become the country’s first video gambling operator to be publicly traded. With the backing of investors, Accel now hopes to bring video gambling to other cash-strapped states hungry for new sources of revenue.
Few would have predicted Rubinstein’s fledgling enterprise to emerge as the industry leader in 2009, when Illinois legalized video gambling outside of casinos. He had no experience in the gambling business and no apparent ties to companies that, before legalization, had provided bars and restaurants with “gray” machines, simulated video slots and poker devices that were legal but widely known to be used for illegal gambling.
Rubenstein, according to the company, used a combination of savvy hires, well-timed acquisitions of other operators and infusions of capital from family, friends and private equity firms to catapult Accel to the top of the heap.
But records obtained by ProPublica Illinois, as well as interviews with current and former Accel employees who asked to remain anonymous, reveal that Rubenstein and his company also took advantage of connections at the Illinois Gaming Board. They did so using an unusual degree of access to a key board attorney during video gambling’s earliest days, when regulations were being drafted and the competition to lock up gambling locations was at its fiercest.
In addition, the company obtained internal gaming board documents about its competitors and benefited from board decisions that made it more difficult for other operators to gain a foothold in Illinois’ video gambling market.
The gaming board lawyer, Bill Bogot, was a childhood friend of Rubenstein’s. He met with Rubenstein regularly and used two private email accounts to correspond with him, answering legal questions and helping the company when it ran into snags with other regulators, according to the emails and interviews.
After reviewing the emails obtained by ProPublica Illinois, gaming board officials said they have opened an investigation into whether the correspondence between Bogot and Rubenstein violated a state law prohibiting such communications to help ensure a level playing field in state-regulated industries. The officials also said they are “undertaking a comprehensive review of past and current [gaming board] practices.”
Similarly, industry insiders say the confidential documents in Accel’s possession would have given it an advantage in building its business. It’s also illegal for gaming board staff to release “protected personal information” to third parties; gaming board officials said they would investigate the leaked confidential documents and, if appropriate, forward any findings to other authorities.
“The IGB takes these allegations very seriously and will not tolerate unethical or illegal conduct of any kind,” said Marcus Fruchter, a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement lawyer appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in May 2019 to run the gaming board.
Bogot said in an interview that he would have given any other video gambling operator the same information he provided to Rubenstein in the emails. Through a spokesman, Rubenstein declined to be interviewed for this story. He and other company officials did not answer questions from ProPublica Illinois.
“They keep getting bigger and bigger, which gives them more power in Springfield,” said Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, who has spoken out against the company’s growth at gaming board hearings. “Anytime they want to lobby at the Capitol, they have a huge amount of resources. To me, it restricts the power of the regulators.”
Accel and its subsidiaries have donated heavily to Illinois politicians, including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and, more recently, new Senate President Don Harmon.
The Burr Ridge-based company consistently has been able to get more video gambling locations up and running than any other operator in the state. In the first year after video gambling went live, for instance, Accel had more than 400 locations come on line, roughly double the number of the next largest operator.
In fact, the company accounted for nearly one out of every five “go-live” events during that period, even as thousands of other licensing applications sat in the pipeline waiting to be approved, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis of gaming board data.
When state lawmakers legalized video gambling, they did not provide the gaming board with adequate funding or manpower to write hundreds of pages of regulations, vet thousands of licensing applications and have gaming agents visit each location to physically turn on the machines — a huge undertaking. Nor were there rules governing the order in which the gaming board would approve locations or deploy its limited resources.
Accel became the largest operator out of the gate and stayed there. By the end of 2019, the company operated machines in more than 2,300 of Illinois’ roughly 7,400 video gambling locations, gaming board data shows.
Video gambling wasn’t the balm for Illinois’ beleaguered finances that its boosters had projected: It took nearly a decade for the money lawmakers were counting on from video gambling to materialize. Cities and towns, meanwhile, have seen little financial gain from video gambling, leaving some municipalities to push for more taxes and fees on the devices.
But it’s been a boon to Rubenstein. As Accel’s president and CEO, he received compensation in 2018 worth more than $2.3 million and holds shares currently valued at nearly $100 million, according to SEC filings.
A Well-Funded Launch
Rubenstein started Accel in July 2009, less than two weeks before then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Video Gaming Act into law. To get the company off the ground, his mother, Susan Rubenstein, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, invested about $1.2 million, according to Accel’s licensing application, which is not public but was obtained by ProPublica Illinois. Andrew Rubenstein invested $255,000; his younger brother, Gordon, added $205,000; and his younger sister, Emily, put in $25,000.
Andrew, now 51, would lead the company. Gordon, a venture capitalist who had moved to San Francisco, would sit on the board of directors. Their father, Jeffrey, is a partner at a Chicago law firm that helped draft many of Accel’s legal documents and contracts.
Before launching Accel, Andrew had spent a brief period in Seattle working for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen as a consultant during the 1990s. He helped an uncle run one of Illinois’ largest liquor store chains and assisted an aunt who operated beauty parlors in Seattle. He also owned a windshield replacement company there for nearly five years, according to Rubenstein’s personal disclosure form filed with the gaming board.
Rubenstein hired a group of friends and former coworkers to help him launch Accel, company records and interviews show. The group fanned out across the state identifying amusement companies to purchase. Those companies had already established long-standing relationships with bars and restaurants by providing them with pool tables, pinball machines and other amusements, including gray games.
Accel raised an additional $7 million, mainly from friends and business associates. Positioning the company as a clean, regulatory-friendly alternative to former gray operators, the company said it had the resources to gain an edge on mom-and-pop competitors.
“We are very conscious of only working with those people that understand and respect that we are moving to a highly regulated industry,” Rubenstein wrote in a September 2010 investor update. “Following this approach has allowed Accel to emerge as a company that is respected for its integrity and strong ethics, as well as its strong management team.”
Once funding was in place, Accel bought more than a dozen amusement companies throughout the state.
In 2010, just over a year after creating Accel — and still two years before the state’s first video gambling machine was turned on — Rubenstein brimmed with confidence in the company he had created.
“I started this company about 14 months ago with the goal of becoming one of the largest, most successful and highly respected companies in Illinois’ new legalized gaming industry,” he wrote. “There was little doubt we were going to get there — but I never imagined success happening so quickly.”
In the early scramble to stake a claim to the state’s video gambling industry, one man seemed likely to be Accel’s main competitor: Nicky Nichols. Nichols was already a major player in Louisiana, where video slot and poker machines had been legal in truck stops for decades. He also was licensed as a distributor of the devices in Pennsylvania.
His experience gave him entree to a corner of the industry that had been operating just outside the law for decades in Illinois. The coin-operated amusement companies had been splitting the tax-free profits from the gray machines with the bar and restaurant owners. The Video Gaming Act set up the same equal payout, but operators and establishments had to get licensed, sign contracts called use agreements and pay taxes.
Use agreements are the building blocks of the industry’s prized assets: routes, which are groups of establishments strung together by geography and personal relationships. Because many of the operators who controlled gray video gambling routes were unlikely or unwilling to get licensed, a new business could scale up quickly by buying existing routes.
Accel bought routes all over the state and put them under one umbrella. Nichols created eight separate companies that operated in different regions. Each partner received an upfront payment and a stake in the company in exchange for running the route. Nichols agreed to provide money to buy machines, pay lawyers and bankroll acquisitions, interviews and documents obtained by ProPublica Illinois show.
Through an attorney, Nichols declined to be interviewed for this story.
By March 2011, a year and a half before video gambling went live, Nichols’ companies had signed up about 650 locations to Accel’s 315, according to Accel board documents obtained by ProPublica Illinois.
Then Nichols ran into trouble. News reports detailed the criminal conviction of his father-in-law, Robert Guidry, a former tugboat operator who had pleaded guilty in 1998 to bribing Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards to obtain one of the state’s first riverboat gambling licenses.
The stories came as the gaming board was vetting licensing applications. The video gambling law gives the gaming board wide latitude in making licensing decisions to “preserve the integrity and security of gaming.” But the board has been forced to reverse at least five licensing denials after being sued, according to a review of lawsuits and interviews with gaming lawyers and industry insiders.
In July 2012, less than two months before machines went live, the gaming board denied licenses to Nichols’ companies. The board cited his familial ties to Guidry — even though corporate records, Nichols’ licensing applications and documents from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board show Guidry had no connection to his son-in-law’s companies. The board also cited a misdemeanor gambling conviction from 1983, resulting in an $88 fine, that one of Nichols’ main investors failed to report to the board.
The gaming board denied a request by Nichols to withdraw and resubmit his applications so he could remove the investor from his companies. Other operators have been allowed to do this, records and interviews show. Current gaming board officials said they could not comment on previous practices and licensing decisions. The gaming board’s chairman at the time, retired Cook County Circuit Court Judge Aaron Jaffe, told ProPublica Illinois in a 2018 interview that there were multiple factors in Nichols’ denial and that allowing him to withdraw his applications would not have changed the outcome.
With Nichols blocked from the industry, Accel had a clear path to becoming the state’s biggest video gambling operator.
As video gambling operators across the state were jockeying for position and rushing to get reams of paperwork for their locations approved, Rubenstein had a direct line to Bogot, the gaming board attorney who helped write many of the regulations for the nascent industry.
Rubenstein and Bogot had grown up together in the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette, attended New Trier High School in Winnetka and were friends. In an interview with ProPublica, Bogot said he had lost touch with Rubenstein until they ran into each other at a gaming board hearing in 2009.
“I hadn’t talked to him in two years,” Bogot said. “When he saw me, he asked what I was doing at a gaming board hearing. I said, ‘I work here.’”
At some point, Rubenstein and Bogot began communicating privately about video gambling rules, despite a state law prohibiting “any written or oral communication by any person that imparts or requests material information,” more than a dozen email strings obtained from multiple sources show.
In May 2012, for instance, Rubenstein contacted Bogot on one of Bogot’s personal email accounts seeking advice on how to help gambling locations get licensed. Bogot provided detailed information about how to identify the corporate officers of bars and restaurants, ending with the caveat, “I am no corporate lawyer, nor can I give you legal advice, so please independently confirm the above.”
“You’re better than a corporate lawyer,” Rubenstein replied.
In August 2012, about a month before video slot machines went live, Rubenstein sent an email to Bogot’s Yahoo and Google accounts asking about a truck stop sitting on 2 acres in the western Illinois town of Galesburg. To qualify as a location for video gambling, the site had to be at least 3 acres.
Rubenstein asked Bogot if the owner could lease a lot next door to meet the requirement.
“He certainly can lease more property to get over the line,” Bogot wrote. “After that he should amend his acres (I hope he did not try to fudge this initially) and complete the truck stop affidavit. That’s my two cents.”
“I could never imagine anyone in this industry trying to ‘fudge’ anything,” Rubenstein responded. “These are people who have honorably operated ‘gray’ games for over 25 years. Two cents gets this guy 3 acres.”
The prohibition on “ex parte” communication is designed to help ensure a level playing field and avoid conflicts of interest or even the appearance of such conflicts. The law requires state officials to report private communications with people from regulated entities, which Bogot acknowledged he did not do.
The gaming board’s administrator at the time said he didn’t know about the communications. “I was unaware that they were communicating about board business by private email,” said the administrator, Mark Ostrowski.
Bogot said his contact with Rubenstein was not improper, but he would not say if he had similar communications on his personal accounts with other operators. He said he recused himself from licensing or disciplinary decisions regarding Accel while working for the board because of his relationship with Rubenstein.
“Everyone knew that I knew Andy, so they wouldn’t ask me,” he said. “If it was Accel’s file, I would not weigh in.”
He also said he regularly forwarded his official emails to private accounts because he couldn’t access his state emails outside of the office, although none of the emails with Rubenstein appear to have been forwarded from Bogot’s gaming board account.
In the case of the Galesburg lot, Bogot said he provided Rubenstein information that was already widely known in the industry. The tactic of leasing property to meet the 3-acre requirement for truck stops is not detailed in state regulations for video gambling but has been used by other companies to gain approval.
“Did I treat Andy different than anyone else? The answer is hell no,” Bogot said in the interview. “That kind of email you have, I feel damn confident that I would handle the same way for anyone.”
Current gaming board officials said the emails raise ethical and legal questions.
“The IGB has already begun a process to examine these allegations, and it will take appropriate disciplinary action at the conclusion of the investigation where warranted,” Fruchter said in written responses to ProPublica Illinois.
Bogot left the board in July 2013 and not long after went to work for Donna More, Accel’s gaming attorney. More was the gaming board’s first general counsel and is currently running in the Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney.
Accel Jumps Out Ahead
When the Video Gaming Act passed the General Assembly in May 2009, lawmakers expected the industry to get up and running within a year. Instead, it took more than three years.
The wait put a strain on video gambling operators, which had purchased routes that weren’t yet generating revenue. In its first four years, Accel operated at a loss, which grew from $2 million in 2010 to nearly $3.4 million in 2013, company financial records obtained by ProPublica Illinois show.
The delay also put pressure on the state, which had borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars against projected video gambling revenues that hadn’t yet materialized. As a result, when video gambling finally went live in September 2012, operators as well as the state were eager to bring online as many locations as possible.
There are no regulations in place for determining the order in which the gaming board would approve location licenses and bring the machines online, making the process opaque.
Ostrowski, the former gaming board administrator, said the board simply responded to applications when they were completed. “Usually, the locations that got through the system were those that were complete, with no errors or missing information,” he said. “If things were incomplete, we would kick them back.”
Accel got more locations approved than any other operator, allowing the company to jump out ahead, as other operators had thousands of applications waiting in the pipeline. In December 2012, for example, Accel got more than 70 locations up and running, about a third of the total approved that month and roughly four times the next highest operator, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis of board data.
The data also shows that Accel was the first operator in about 70 cities and towns across the state during the first year of video gambling, more than any of its competitors, even when other companies had applications pending before the board in those places.
In addition to contracting with the firm that hired Bogot, Accel also retained the board’s former general counsel. And it has directly hired the board’s former secretary and a retired state trooper who supervised special projects for the agency. All of them remain with the company.
Accel began turning a profit in 2014, when its net operating income reached $2.6 million. Four years later, the company’s profits had reached $10.8 million, according to financial reports obtained by ProPublica Illinois.
King of Video Gambling
By the end of 2018, Accel controlled nearly one of every four video gambling machines in the state, generating on average nearly $1 million a day in revenue. Illinois’ market had grown so big, with players losing $1.5 billion that year, that it made Accel not only the largest video gambling operator in the state but also the largest in the country.
Since 2016, the company’s growth has been driven primarily through acquisitions of other large operators, a strategy driven in part by the saturation of the Illinois market and supported by an infusion of money from private equity firms.
Accel’s growth eventually attracted one of the world’s largest private equity firms, TPG Capital, which through a subsidiary began pursuing Accel early last year with the idea of taking it public.
TPG Capital didn’t respond to requests for comment.
As part of last year’s gambling expansion, state lawmakers sought to increase the 30% tax on video gambling, among the lowest in the country. Rubenstein partnered with other operators to try to kill the tax hike. Their campaign, called “Bet on Main Street,” claimed it was a movement of small business owners. In reality, it was driven by Accel and other large video gambling operators.
The tax increase passed, raising the rate to 34%, still lower than many other states.
When the Video Gaming Act passed in May 2009, the law placed a 5% cap on how much of the market an operator could control. It was designed to ensure the industry would remain a small business generator. But lawmakers removed the cap a year later. A new provision was inserted in its place, one that required the board to write rules preventing “undue economic concentration.”
The board produced those rules six years later but did not create a threshold for undue economic concentration. Nor does it have the power to review video gambling acquisitions before they occur, as it does with casinos, though it has recently drafted a rule that would give it that ability. Currently, the only enforcement for a violation of undue economic concentration would be a license revocation or denial. That has never happened.
When video gambling started in Illinois, about 80 operators were in business, according to gaming board data. Today, there are around 50 and the top 10 companies control more than 85% of the state’s video gambling machines and locations and account for more than 80% of the money they generate.
In late August, Accel announced that it was going to buy Illinois’ eighth-largest operator, Grand River Jackpot, for about $100 million. At the gaming board’s meeting the following month, Bedell, the anti-gambling activist, asked the board to block the purchase, claiming the deal violated the “undue economic concentration” rule. The board listened politely but did not comment.
The deal closed in November. Accel now controls nearly a third of the state’s video gambling machines. As the company looks to expand into other states, Rubenstein is highlighting Accel’s regulatory record and financial success.
In a quote published on the company’s website, he says, “There’s nothing more important than building relationships that start with trust and integrity, and maximize value for both parties.”