Casino company cultivating black friends in high places following claims of racism

Kenyatta2
Campaign emails were sent out with these invitations attached for Kenyatta Johnson’s birthday party/fundraiser.

CITY COUNCILMAN Kenyatta Johnson had planned to hold his Oct. 29 birthday bash and campaign fundraiser at Xfinity Live, the entertainment and dining venue owned by the company seeking to build a casino in his South Philadelphia district.

But after the Daily News made inquires, the councilman's plans changed.

Campaign emails sent to potential donors on Oct. 7 with attached invitations featuring a smiling Johnson advertised that the party would be held at the venue owned by the Cordish Cos. of Baltimore, which has been pushing back against allegations that it discriminates against black customers in other states.

By Oct. 9, the day after the Daily News interviewed Johnson's campaign spokesman, Mark Nevins, new donor emails were sent out advising that the party was being moved to the Bellevue hotel, on South Broad Street.

Nevins, this week, called the Oct. 7 mailings "a mistake" and asserted that the campaign had never officially signed off on holding the event at Xfinity Live - despite what the invitations said.

"It sounds to me like an email may have gone out prematurely," he said, "so perhaps somebody thought that something was finalized that was not."

Critics of Cordish - which is facing three discrimination lawsuits out of state and has denied any wrongdoing - said it's hard to believe Johnson's campaign would have sent out hundreds of invitations containing an event location that had not been nailed down - invitations soliciting donations ranging from $100 to $2,500.

They fear Johnson is too close to Cordish, given that the company is seeking zoning changes from Council that are needed to build the $400 million casino and 18-story hotel.

Last week, Johnson introduced zoning legislation for the casino project, and this morning he is scheduled to introduce the final legislation needed.

Nevins conceded having Johnson's party at a Cordish venue wouldn't have looked good.

"Xfinity is a great place to have an event like this" he said. "But because Cordish is in the middle of going through a zoning process, the final decision was that it would be inappropriate to have an event there."

Nevertheless, Johnson last week said he backs Cordish because he believes the company has a strong record of racial inclusion in hiring and will bring 2,000 permanent jobs to the city.

"I think it's a win-win. But also, I'm going to remain sensitive to the issues regarding diversity, race, and we'll make sure we continue to stay on top of it," he said.

Johnson is among a growing number of influential Philadelphia African-Americans who've embraced Cordish, whose partner in the casino project is Greenwood Racing, owner of Parx Casino in Bensalem.

Mayor Nutter, a strong backer, in June succeeded in getting the national office of the NAACP to cancel a news conference by local NAACP president Rodney Muhammad, who at the time was critical of Cordish.

By July, Muhammad, a minister with the Nation of Islam, was supporting Cordish, and explained that his initial concerns were the result of misinformation provided by a labor union with an ax to grind with the company.

The Rev. Terrence Griffith, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity Inc., in April wrote Johnson a scathing letter in opposition to Cordish, only to give the company his blessing in July, citing an investigation by his group that he said found no basis for the discrimination claims.

Last month, Cordish hired Millennium 3 Management, an African-American-owned Philadelphia public-relations firm to help with its image, and was the lead contributor of the 12-foot bronze statue of boxing great Joe Frazier that was unveiled on the grounds of Xfinity Live.

Paula Peebles, chairwoman of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network, said she is distressed that local black leaders are supporting an out-of-town company with a questionable reputation at the expense of racial justice.

"I don't know why they believe people in the city are not aware of what's going on, particularly the black community. They are very much aware about this struggle," Peebles said.

"We're not anti-hotel, casino development. We just don't want this particular developer to build because of their history of racial discrimination of black people," added Peebles, who last Friday received the Ida B. Wells Crusader-Fighter Award during the Philadelphia NAACP's annual gala.

The Cordish Cos., for the first time, was a corporate sponsor of the gala, purchased a full-page color ad in the souvenir book and was represented by company chief operating officer Zed Smith, who addressed the gathering.

Smith, who is African-American, said Cordish's ability to win friends in the black community has to do with its diversity record.

"As we've begun to do business in Philadelphia, people have inquired about our track record. I think what they've found is our track record is exceptional."

He referred questions about how much money Cordish spent to sponsor the NAACP gala to Muhammad, but said that annually the company donates more than $1.5 million to charitable causes.

Muhammad, reached by phone yesterday, said he had spent the day involved in funeral services for former NAACP chapter president Jerry Mondesire and was not able to talk.

Peebles' organization last month released a report titled "Indicted," which concluded that Cordish venues in Louisville, Ky., and Kansas City, Mo., engage in "systemic, wholesale discrimination" against blacks "primarily through unequal enforcement of a dubious dress code policy."

Peebles said she remains hopeful Johnson will have an open mind about her group's concerns with Cordish during upcoming hearings for the zoning legislation.

"I don't think that a councilman should permit anyone to build in their district with this type of cloud hanging over their heads. I think this has to be thoroughly vetted," she said.

"I can't be bought off and you can't get me to sell out my people," Peebles added.

On Twitter: @MensahDean