THE RUN of bad luck at the leisure group Wembley continued yesterday when voters in the American state of Colorado rejected plans that would have transformed the gaming group's prospects, just when the odds are shortening over its future viability.
The unsavoury implications of a multi-million dollar bribery investigation dogging Wembley in the north-eastern state of Rhode Island were more than enough to convince a sceptical Colorado public not to allow the British company to expand its betting interests in their state.
The result was another blow for the former owner of England's national football stadium, which is fighting to clear its name after two of its executives were charged with conspiring to bribe local American officials. Their aim, allegedly, was to get the green light to install additional slot machines in the group's Lincoln Park racetrack.
Thousands of Rhode Island citizens travel from miles away to enjoy the noisy fun of an evening at the dogs. It is Wembley's most lucrative asset, contributing 90 per cent of group profits. Permission came for Wembley to almost double its video gaming machines at its Rhode Island site, but so too did indictments for Nigel Potter, who was parachuted in to help sort out Wembley's mess in the mid Nineties, and Daniel Bucci, its Lincoln Park boss.
Mr Potter has stepped down as chief executive and has resigned from its board. Both men face a $250,000 (pounds 150,000) fine and up to five years in jail if found guilty when the case is heard next year.
But Wembley, which denies the accusations, could be forced to pay out $11m, $500,000 for each of the 22 indictments issued by Rhode Island district court. It could also lose its licence to operate Lincoln Park, a real risk given the antipathy of the state's Governor, Donald Carcieri, towards the company. The Governor, who controls five out of nine seats on the Lottery Commission, the gaming regulator, said that he "cannot and will not negotiate a new contract with Wembley".
Yesterday Claes Hultman, Wembley's chairman and acting chief executive, and Mark Elliott, its finance director, were as bullish as a gambler playing double or quits. Although they declined to comment on the legal situation, they know Messrs Potter and Bucci, as well as the company, are innocent until proven guilty. Plus they are adamant no one has done anything wrong.
Mr Elliott was optimistic about the "no" vote, despite admitting the shadow cast by Lincoln Park had been unhelpful. "Colorado was a tremendous opportunity. If it had come off, it could have been worth tens, hundreds of millions of dollars in market value. We always said it was a 50:50 chance, but because of the upside it was a risk worth taking," he said. The campaign cost the group pounds 4.4m, just part of an estimated pounds 8.5m hit it expects to take this year, in part because of spiralling legal costs, which include an unrelated court case in Hong Kong. Mr …