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story.lead_photo.caption Peggy Richardson is seen in this November 2016 file photo following her appointment as 26th Judicial Circuit judge in Moniteau County. She was selected April 29, 2021, as the executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission. (Photo submitted to the California Democrat)

Peggy Richardson, a former circuit judge from Central Missouri, will be the new executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission, a news release issued Thursday stated.

Richardson, who was on the bench for 22 years, takes over an agency facing several challenges and will bring a fresh perspective from outside, Chairman Mike Leara said in an interview.

"That she was unaffiliated with either the industry or the commission was appealing," Leara said.

Her first day is May 14, and she'll be paid $113,000 a year.

The commission received 41 applications for the executive director post, which has been open since the resignation of David Grothaus a year ago. Many were from the casino industry or regulatory agencies in other states, Leara said.

"We had some great candidates, but she just stood out," Leara said.

Richardson will be expected to deal with lingering issues from Grothaus' tenure, including the role of the Missouri Highway Patrol's Gaming Division in enforcement of state law on casino property and investigating license applicants, Leara said.

Grothaus, who was executive director from March 2019 to the end of April 2020, resigned amid furor over his efforts to cut costs associated with the patrol.

He questioned whether the on-site security work could be done by local law enforcement or casino guards and whether career investigators would be a more effective tool for licensing than patrol personnel.

The commission pays about $550,000 a year for patrol vehicles, $725,000 a year for fuel, supports more than five full-time instructors at the patrol academy and provides $800,000 for equipment for the academy and patrol technical operations, state budget documents show.

Richardson will be responsible for renegotiating the deal with the Highway Patrol that is embodied in a memorandum of understanding signed in the 1990s, Leara said.

"I have also expressed our desire as a commission to have a new, fresh memorandum of understanding with the patrol, with discussions of cutting costs, however we do that," Leara said. "That will aid in smoothing over some of the tension between civilian staff and the Highway Patrol."

The commission's main source of support is the $2 admission fee paid by casinos for every person who enters the gambling floor. Half of the money goes to the host community and half pays for commission administration, with any surplus going to support Missouri veterans homes and other needs.

Over the five years ending June 30, 2019 — before disruptions due to COVID-19 — casino admissions fell almost 16 percent. Transfers to the Veterans Commission fund fell almost 30 percent, from $26.7 million in fiscal 2014 to $19 million in fiscal 2019.

Admissions continue to fall, this year down 24 percent over the first nine months of fiscal 2020. Casinos closed in mid-March last year and did not reopen until June.

Richardson will also advise the commission on how to handle a report from the Graves Garrett law firm, hired to review licensing investigations, Leara said. Since the report, which cost $400,000, was delivered to the commission, it has been held as a closed record.

"We still have that Graves Garrett report we have not come to our final conclusions on as a body," Leara said. "She will be a great asset for analyzing the report and the conclusions, and not being affiliated with any of that, she is going to aid in that tremendously."

Pending legislation could create additional work for the commission. While passage is seen as increasingly unlikely, lawmakers could legalize sports wagering and put the commission in charge of certifying video lottery terminals to replace 'gray market' machines in bars and convenience stores.

Richardson, 63, became an associate circuit judge for Moniteau County in 1998. She held that post until November 2016, when she was appointed circuit judge by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Richardson will be the commission's eighth executive director and the first woman to serve in the role.

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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