LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Just a few days into his job running Arkansas' lottery, Ernie Passailaigue is already sounding like a man under siege.
In his first appearance before lawmakers as the state lottery's executive director, Passailaigue complained that reporters were focusing only on the negative and the trivial. And he says the public won't understand what goes into setting up the lottery from scratch.
Passailaigue took a defensive tone last week as he explained his plan to create 88 positions for the new games, including two vice presidents he wants to hire at $225,000 salary each.
The former director of South Carolina's lottery, at one point comparing starting a lottery to a war, seemed to stake his future in Arkansas on whether he could deliver on his promises.
"If I can't deliver what I say I'm going to deliver, based on my plan, I guess I'll have to go back to South Carolina," Passailaigue told lawmakers. "I'm willing to stake my reputation on getting this job done and getting it successful, the way I've envisioned it."
Until the first scratch-off tickets start getting printed, there's little to judge Passailaigue other than the startup of the lottery. And so far, there's been plenty to target.There's the $324,000 the Arkansas Lottery Commission voted to pay Passailaigue, making him one of the highest paid lottery executives in the country. On top of that, the commission offered him more than $11,000 in housing allowances a perk that they didn't announce when they hired him but that he turned down.
Now, he wants to bring in two of his former colleagues from South Carolina and offer them a combined $450,000 to take top jobs with the lottery. Some lawmakers said they're already hearing complaints about the high pay.
"When the commission hired you and paid your salary, the constituents out there were raising all kinds of Cain and ringing my phone off the wall," Rep. Buddy Lovell, D-Marked Tree, told Passailaigue. "And I've already heard from them about these two salaries since yesterday's commission meeting."
Passailaigue brushed aside questions about the pay, blaming reporters for focusing on the negative.
"This is the ultimate in second-guessing, Monday morning quarterbacking. You cannot make a right decision," Passailaigue said. "You cannot justify to the average person in Arkansas my salary or anybody else's compensation."
Blaming reporters isn't a new trick, but Passailaigue seems to be going a step further, saying that the general public doesn't get it.
"You cannot go back and talk to the average person about this because they will not understand it," Passailaigue told lawmakers. "Hopefully, they've got enough faith and trust and confidence in your abilities because you're elected and you'll come up here and listen to all of this."
Passailaigue's also tried to quell concerns that the lottery is already living up to opponents' fears that it'll open the doors to casino-style gambling. After raising the possibility of offering keno similar to bingo or a lottery with players picking a group of numbers and winning by matching numbers drawn by the house as one of the lottery's first games.
Gov. Mike Beebe, who didn't vote for the lottery, told reporters that he didn't believe that was what voters had in mind when they approved the amendment authorizing the games.
Passailaigue has spent the past week telling reporters how little he cares about keno, a game he says he won't even consider looking at for at least a year or two. To illustrate how he feels on the matter, on Tuesday it ranked two on a scale of zero to 100.
By Thursday, he said, it was a one.
"It's not important to me," he told reporters.
What's important to Passailaigue is getting the startup of the lottery right, and that means meeting a self-imposed deadline of Oct. 29 to sell the first tickets. Passailaigue, however, is reluctant to say that his career is on the line if he misses that mark.
"Do I get a bonus if it's Oct. 28, or do I get fired if it's Oct. 30? I don't know," Passailaigue said. "Everybody will know whether this is a success or failure."