By Royal Calkins
For a man of his apparent stature, John H. Park is relatively unknown, at least in California. Since he and his various partnerships own about seven licenses, the state gaming people have conducted background checks on him more than once. But those aren’t public record, so even when gaming agents find disqualifying information, they don’t make it public.
Park has proposed a new cardroom in the city of Marina. In 2020, a Gaming Control Commission agenda item said its investigative staff was recommending denial of a license for Park because of something that turned up in a background investigation. The agenda and minutes didn’t say what was found during the clearance procedure. A commission representative said they couldn’t comment.
Park could not be reached to comment and a spokesman was able to offer only limited information before Voices’ deadline. The spokesman, East Bay lobbyist Gordon Galvan, said the issue had nothing to do with Park but instead involved an expired gaming license for a card room Pack was attempting to purchase. That raised questions about whether Park could acquire both the business and the license or would need to start from scratch with a license application. The commission allowed Park to move ahead without a new license. A similar issue could cloud Park’s effort to move into Marina.
Last year, Park won a huge gaming-related judgment but suffered a little bad publicity in the process. A Sonoma County jury awarded $47 million to Park because a one-time attorney of his, Tracey Buck-Walsh of Healdsburg, undermined him while he was unsuccessfully attempting to buy half interest in one of the state’s largest card rooms, Casino M8trix, in San Jose.
Buck-Walsh told the Gambling Control Commission and competitors of Park that he was not worthy of a gaming license because of issues in his past, issues that she learned about while representing Park, issues that have not made it into the public realm.
In another case, the commission held a long evidentiary hearing into some of Park’s practices. Before a ruling was issued, he withdrew the application that prompted the hearing, according to state records.
Park’s gaming holdings are in Central and Northern California — including Livermore, Manteca, Lodi and Rancho Cordova — but he made a major move into the Southern California market last year. With the help of a $210 million loan, his Parkwest Casinos bought the Bicycle Hotel and Casino in Bell Gardens, a pioneer in the California card room biz. It features 185 card tables.
During the purchase process, the former owners admitted that they had not properly monitored a high-rolling Chinese national who used the casino to launder millions of dollars over several years.
At a Marina public forum Park sponsored on Jan. 11, Park told the small crowd that he started playing cards as a youth in Southern California. Soon, he said, the cardroom management asked him to work as a “proposition player.” Those are people who fill open spots at the gaming tables to help get games started and stimulate more interest and more betting. Park also operates a proposition company, which provides banking services to card rooms and casinos.
In college, he told the crowd, he studied statistics, good preparation for his chosen field, which he entered after selling cars for a time.
People who know Park say he usually gets what he wants. It could be because of his campaign contributions.
According to campaign financial reports, Park lent tens of thousands of dollars to oppose a ballot measure that would have allowed tribal casinos in California to start offering sports betting. While contributing generously to gambling-related measures, he also appears to have gone out of his way to support politicians who could have an impact on his ventures. The state Bureau of Gaming Control is part of the state Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Rob Bonta, and the state Gambling Control Commission is part of the Governor’s Office. The five commission members are appointed by the governor. Park contributed a total of $39,200 to Gov. Newsom in 2017 and 2018 and $32,000 last year. Park and his company also made significant contributions to Bonta’s legislative campaigns, Bonta’s attorney general campaign and his wife’s legislative campaign last year.
Earlier he contributed to Kamala Harris’s attorney general campaigns.
During the state legislative races of the last couple of years, Park contributed to at least 45 candidates, mostly Democrats. He gave most of the candidates between $2,000 and $4,000, but some got more, including Mrs. Bonta and one candidate who went on to serve on the gaming commission.
City campaign records reportedly don’t show any contributions from Pack to any council candidates.
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