"What's black and white and read all over?"

Sunday, February 17, 2008
Posted 10:10 PM by

Report: Pa. slots parlor owners, wannabes spent $1.7M lobbying in '07

Now even the total amount of money gambling interests spent to lobby Pennsylvania lawmakers is being kept from public view.Citizens Voice Projects Editor Dave Janoski pulled off a statewide scoop Sunday, revealing in his Wilkes-Barre newspaper that lobbyists for holders and seekers of casino licenses spent nearly $1.7 million last year to influence state lawmakers.

It's a scoop because no one but the lobbyists and the legislators themselves know right now how much money was spent on their behalf. Public release of the total amount spent lobbying by gambling and other interests in the state appears to be purposely obfuscated behind bureaucratic process.

No offense to Janoski, who I worked with for years, but his total does not account for all the nameless middlemen and others who stand to make a killing off gambling here and are lobbying for their chance.

Although the House of Representatives passed a lobbyist disclosure bill on Oct. 24, 2006, and Gov. Ed Rendell signed it into law on Nov. 1 of that year, the total amount of money being spent by gambling lobbyists is still a closely held secret.

There is a lobbying expenditure database posted online. However, you have to know the name of the lobbyist or his/her client in order to get any detailed information out of it. Even if you went through it from "A" to "Z", there's no way to know for sure if you missed someone. Then you have to add all those numbers up.

This is what passes for public disclosure here in Slotsylvania. It's like trying to find a specific tree from within a tall, thick forest.

Previously, lobbying disclosure for the state Senate broke down the total amount of money given by the interests of the lobbyists' clients. While the online database is a step in the right direction, it's nearly meaningless without knowing the total amount spent by similar interests for similar goals.

A notice on the Web site of the state Department of State's Division of Campaign Finance and Lobbying Disclosure says the Lobbying Disclosure Regulations Committee has met for more than a year now - ostensibly to discuss how best to gather and release the information - but didn't publish its proposed regulations until the Jan. 19, 2008, issue of the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

The new regs are now in a 30-day public comment period. Any person with questions or comments may e-mail Louis Lawrence Boyle, deputy chief counsel for the Department of State, at , to state Attorney General Tom Corbett, the regulation committee's chairman, at , or to .

You may want to use those e-mail addresses after you finish reading this.

The rules are largely legalese but basically focus on the filing requirements the lobbyists must meet, not how the information is supposed to be released or in what form.

So why then are total breakdowns by category of lobbyist still being withheld from the public?

The regulations committee adopted interim guidelines on May 30 and the lobbyists have been filing reports for more than a year now.

Although the 2004 law legalizing slot machine gambling banned direct campaign contributions from anyone with gambling interests, it did not bar them from hiring lobbyists who can wine and dine lawmakers and make indirect political donations on their client's behalf.

In 2007, holders and seekers of casino licenses paid lobbyists $1.68 million to represent their interests in the capital, Janoski reports, without citing a specific source. However, he does quote extensively from Craig Christopher, counsel to federally indicted state Sen. Vincent Fumo (D-Philadelphia).

Christopher, who had a hand in drafting the state slots law, said no other state with gambling has barred lobbying from companies with an interest in it.

Then again, probably no other state gave a slots parlor license to a guy like Louis DeNaples. The Dunmore billionaire and federal felon was indicted for lying about his alleged mob ties a little more than three months after opening his Mount Airy casino. He has denied any wrong-doing.

While DeNaples faced a Dauphin County grand jury for months last year, his company, Mount Airy #1 L.L.C, spent $67,375 lobbying lawmakers for "casino gambling" through the Philadelphia firm of S.R. Wojdak & Associates LP.

That was on top of at least $679,375 and possibly more than $1 million in political contributions DeNaples gave to Rendell, Corbett, key lawmakers, judges and party groups to get slot machine gambling legalized and to obtain a slots parlor license between 2000 and 2004.

While I don't doubt Janoski's reporting, I think he has only seen the tip of the iceberg.

In 2006, the last year for which total corporate and lobbying expenses are currently available, gambling interests spent $3.1 million just to lobby the state's 50 senators. That was down from the $4.6 million spent in 2005 and the $4.7 million spent in 2004.

No figures are available for the state House, which has 203 members.

Despite the lack of lobbying disclosure the lobbying disclosure law has wrought, Majority Floor Leader H. William DeWeese introduced House Bill 2121 last summmer which would legalize table games at the slots parlors - in effect, turning them into full-fledged casinos.

State Sen. Sean Logan (D-Allegheny County) proposed in Senate Bill 658 to shut off the spigot of millions of dollars being spent annually by gambling interests to influence state lawmakers. But his bill hasn't made it out of committee since it was introduced nearly a year ago.

Now, here's the really scarey part.

"Lobbyists employed by gaming companies say tax laws, liquor laws and even Pennsylvania's new Open Records law, which expands public access to government documents, are of interest to the industry," Janoski wrote.

"There is an immense level of detail and private information provided in the licensing process. Our interest in (the Open Records law) was protecting that type of personal information," said Eric Schippers, vice president for government and public affairs for Penn National Gaming Inc.

Penn National opened the Hollywood Casino at its horse track in Dauphin County last week. It spent $238,458 on lobbyists in 2007, Janoski wrote.

To say I hate the lobbying disclosure law with the heat of a thousand suns, is to put it mildly. It was rammed through using some of the same tricks employed to pass the 2004 slots law and the now-repealed 2005 legislative pay raise.

Even when the new regulations are finally enacted, they won't require lobbyists to say specifically which lawmakers were lobbied and how much was spent on each. The lobbyists merely have to state the total amount of money spent on behalf of their client each quarter and briefly why - and even then only if it was more than $2,500.

To delay publicly releasing total lobbying expenditures by category until the new regulations for the law are complete - or even worse, not at all - is just adding further insult to injury to an already bruised, battered and bloodied body politic.

It's one of the reasons why I now call this state Slotsylvania, for we have the best government money can buy in secret.

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