The businessman trying to build a high-profile casino in downtown Sacramento was recently ordered to serve probation, seek alcohol treatment and attend anger management classes after a domestic dispute, an issue state gambling regulators likely will consider.
Steve Ayers, who shuttered his Armour Steel fabrication company last year, is seeking a card room license to transform the iconic copper-colored Elks building on J Street into a five-table gambling hall serving alcohol.
Ayers, 57, was initially charged in May with felony domestic violence against his wife, but pleaded no contest in June to a lesser misdemeanor charge for disturbing the peace. He will serve three years of probation and has agreed to get alcohol treatment and take anger management classes.
Besides his recent offense, Ayers has misdemeanors for driving under the influence in 2011 and 2013, according to Yolo Superior Court documents.
Jonathan Raven, chief deputy district attorney for Yolo County, said the 52-week anger management class and mandated alcohol treatment would help Ayers, since “clearly, this defendant seems to have an issue with alcohol.”
State officials are required to consider whether an applicant’s “prior activities, criminal record, if any, reputation, habits, and associations” pose a threat to the public interest, according to the California Business and Professions Code. The code also mentions that any misdemeanor involving “dishonesty or moral turpitude” could be grounds for disqualification.
The Bureau of Gambling Control under the state Department of Justice conducts an extensive background investigation for all card room owners. DOJ declined to comment on Ayers’ application.
I. Nelson Rose, a gambling-law expert and professor at Whittier Law School, said as long as Ayers is upfront with authorities about the latest run-in with the law, the commission could still approve his application.
“Failure to disclose is the same as lying,” Rose said.
Rose added that the state is primarily concerned with whether an applicant has ties to organized crime or a history of financial crimes.
But Howard Dickstein, a prominent Sacramento tribal-law attorney who has represented several tribes including the owner of Thunder Valley Casino, said Ayers has a “very steep uphill battle to get a license” from the state.
“Moral turpitude is a flexible concept. If they consider this a misdemeanor that involves moral turpitude, that would be an automatic disqualifier,” Dickstein said.
Ayers declined to comment. In a telephone call, he said, “I do not comment on personal or family matters.”
He plans to begin construction on the 2,000-square-foot card room space in the next few weeks, while he awaits the state’s licensing decision for the card room, which would be open 24 hours a day. Ayers has promised a luxurious bar serving high-end alcohol. If the venue proves profitable, the casino would be moved to the adjacent basement floor that has 23,000 square feet, enough room for the state limit of 17 tables.
Ayers is involved in litigation with his daughter, Katharine Gelber, and son-in-law, Michael Gelber, over the couple’s business dealings in the Elks Tower when they ran the event space. Ayers and the Gelbers have filed suits against one another.
Ayers has been politically active for years, giving tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to federal, state and local campaigns. He has donated to Sacramento-area legislative candidates of both parties and Sheriff Scott Jones’ 2016 congressional campaign. At the city level, Ayers has contributed to campaigns for eight of the nine sitting council members, according to city records.
Ayers grew up in Las Vegas and said his childhood dream has been to run a gambling hall. He applied to acquire the state card room license of the former Casino Royale, which was shuttered by the state in 2014.
The Sacramento City Council already has approved a conditional-use permit for Ayers’ proposed casino. He also has support from the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, which declined to comment. Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the area, also declined to comment.
Separately, the owners of two competing card rooms, Clarke Rosa of Capitol Casino on North 16th Street and John Park of Parkwest Casino Lotus in south Sacramento, are suing the city for allowing Ayers to acquire the card room license belonging to Casino Royale. They contend that the city should have awarded the license through a lottery.
In a previous interview, Ayers said the lawsuit could interfere with his plans and accused his competitors of “unjustly enriching themselves.”
Ayers is in the process of transferring an existing alcohol license registered to his Elks Tower address to a new entity. Based on the licensing policies of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, a misdemeanor DUI or disturbing the peace would not disqualify an applicant from receiving an alcohol license, according to Matthew Seck, supervising agent in charge for ABC.
The Bee’s Dan Smith contributed to this report. Richard Chang: @RichardYChang