by Lowman S. Henry | April 07, 2008

Further development of slots casinos should be put on hold while reforms are adopted

The sleaze oozing from the state’s foray into legalized slot machine gambling is threatening to become a gusher. So poisoned is the atmosphere surrounding the gambling industry in Pennsylvania that even the empanelment of a grand jury for other purposes sets tongues wagging.

A new investigative grand jury was empanelled in Dauphin County last week and immediately a major state newspaper reported the grand jury was going to look into further corruption in the state’s gambling industry. The Dauphin County District Attorney’s office had to take the unusual step of denying the report to quash the rumors from spreading further. Suspicions were aroused because of the recent indictment of Louis DeNaples, the license holder for the Mt. Airy Resort slots casino in the Pocono region of the state. Mr. DeNaples stands accused of lying during the licensing process about his relationship with an alleged mob boss.

Swirling are allegations that background investigations were botched and there is finger pointing over who failed to pass along what information to whom. It has become a tawdry affair that further sullies the reputation of a business not know for its purity. As a result, members of both houses of the state legislature are calling for hearings and preparing packages of reform legislation.

A further step needs to be taken. While the legislature deliberates, any and all actions relative to the further awarding of slots licenses or the site selection for casinos should be frozen in place. Nothing more should happen at all until the depth of what appears to be considerable corruption – or at the very least malfeasance – is discovered, and legislative remedies enacted. This will give the legislature time to consider changes to the law. State Senator Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin) predicted from the outset that the law was deficient. He has proven to be correct, and is now taking the lead in calling for significant reform.

Amazingly, the current slots law does not prohibit someone with a felony criminal record from being awarded a casino license. So long as their crime was in the distant past, the transgression is forgiven. In this case, “distant past” is defined as 15 years. Piccola wants to change that provision to bar anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony, ever, from being awarded a casino license. Said Senator Piccola: “If we do not correct this statute we are hanging out a sign telling organized crime: ‘Welcome, open for business, Pennsylvania.'” Unfortunately that “welcome” sign is already out – posted in the type of blazing neon typically associated with casinos.

Not only is the law deficient, but administration and enforcement of the law have also proven to be lacking. The composition of the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission itself is a political compromise aimed more at balancing power between the General Assembly and the governor than it is a practical template for regulating the industry. A smaller commission with a more traditional selection/confirmation process could help. In the all important area of enforcement, it defies logic that the original law did not empower the state’s attorney general with primary oversight.

Meanwhile, over in the State House, Republicans lead by Rep. Curt Schroder (R-Chester) are getting impatient with both the governor and their fellow Democrats over the slow pace of reform efforts. Republicans want to hold hearings on their plans to establish a special House select committee to oversee the slots casino licensing process. To date majority Democrats have not scheduled those hearings.

The current sad state of affairs surrounding the legalization of slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania was predicted and expected. This is a path that should never have been taken. Now that it has, however, it is only prudent to take a break by the wayside and figure out how we have lost our way. Then, the legislature needs to free itself from the special interests that wrought this debacle and change the law in whatever way is necessary to clean up the mess it has created.