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Former Casino Queen Employees Sue Company Over 2012 Sale

Two former Casino Queen employees are suing the old owners of the casino and the hotel, shown here, alleging they inflated the price of the casino in a 2012 sale to employees.
Paul Sableman | Flickr
Two former Casino Queen employees are suing the old owners of the casino and the hotel, shown here, alleging they inflated the price of the casino in a 2012 sale to employees.

EAST ST. LOUIS — Two former Casino Queen employees have filed suit against the casino’s old owners over the 2012 sale of the property that made it employee-owned.

The plaintiffs, Tom Henseik and Jason Gill, allege the former owners of the Casino Queen Inc. sold their stake in the company into an employee stock ownership program (ESOP) at a vastly inflated price and then kept the true value secret for years. The proposed class action lawsuit was filed last month in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis.

“Plaintiffs allege that the Casino Queen ESOP’s fiduciaries concealed for years that the ESOP transaction was intended to benefit the Casino Queen’s prior owners and executives while providing only a hollow promise to employees,” said Michelle C. Yau, a lawyer representing Henseik and Gill. “Employees learned in October 2019 that the Casino Queen stock in their retirement accounts [the only asset held in those accounts] was nearly worthless.”

None of the defendants responded to requests for comment.

The case

In 2012, the Casino Queen sold for $170 million to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), a trust that was supposed to guarantee retirement savings for current employees.

The transaction happened after the owners spent years unsuccessfully trying to sell the company to a third-party buyer, according to the suit.

“Given their inability to find a buyer willing to pay what the selling shareholders wanted for the Casino Queen, the selling board members created their own buyer for the company by establishing the ESOP to buy it outright,” according to the filing.

The case names the former board members of the casino, Charles Bidwill III, Timothy J. Rand, James G. Koman, Jeffrey Watson and Robert Barrows, as defendants. Bidwill, Rand and Koman all held stakes in the company at the time.

The other two, Watson and Barrows, became co-trustees of the ESOP and were charged with approving the 2012 transaction in the interest of the ESOP participants — in this case, employees of the casino — the complaint alleges. 

Watson, who is now a circuit judge in St. Clair County, and Barrows were supposed to follow input from an administrative committee set up by the board of directors, which consisted of board members and officers of the company, the plaintiffs allege.

“The board retained the power to dismiss the co-trustees (who continued serving on the board while charged with approving the 2012 transaction) and administrative committee members, and thus controlled their decision-making,” according to the filing.

The plaintiffs allege the board violated their responsibilities to employees of the casino by approving $170 million in debt the ESOP took on to purchase Casino Queen stock. 

The complaint also states that employees of the casino were unaware of any transaction until after it occurred and were forced to invest their employee-sponsored retirement savings into Casino Queen stock. 

"Shortly after the 2012 transaction, the company stopped making employer contributions to other retirement plan(s). Instead, the company contributed solely to the ESOP which holds only Casino Queen stock, a stock that lacks a public market," according to the filing.

The plaintiffs allege the board misled them to believe their retirement accounts were growing quickly until 2019 when employees learned the value of Casino Queen stock, the only investment in their ESOP accounts, was worth 5% of what they had been told. 

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

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Eric Schmid covers the Metro East area in Illinois for St. Louis Public Radio. He joins the news team as its first Report for America corps member and is tasked with expanding KWMU's coverage east from the Mississippi. Before joining St. Louis Public Radio, Eric held competitive internships at Fox News Channel, NPR-affiliate WSHU Public Radio and AccuWeather. As a news fellow at WSHU's Long Island Bureau, he covered governments and environmental issues as well as other general assignments. Eric grew up in Northern Colorado but attended Stony Brook University, in New York where he earned his degree in journalism in 2018. He is an expert skier, avid reader and lifelong musician-he plays saxophone and clarinet.