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

Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Posted 6:30 PM by

Smaller Slotsylvania cities may get some hush money

Small Pennsylvania towns and cities want a share of the slots money too.A Senate committee that regulates Pennsylvania's slot machine parlors unanimously approved a bill that will give smaller Pennsylvania cities and towns, like Scranton and Johnstown, a taste of the gambling profits before Philly and Pittsburgh can grab more.

The 2004 slots law mandated 5 percent of annual slots revenue go into a fund for economic development and tourism. Much of the money is already going to pay for the Philadelphia Convention Center expansion, improvements at Pittsburgh International Airport and constructing the new Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena.

So much so, that Philly and Pittsburgh can't get a quarter more from the fund for another 10 years.

However, a bill penned by state Sen. John Wozniak (D-Cambria) and approved by the Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee on Monday would change that portion of the law from a 10-year wait, to requiring that up to $1.5 billion of slots revenue be split up among other municipalities before the state's two largest cities can claim more of the fund.

That's one way to keep the rest of the state from getting too jealous and reconsidring its stance on legalized gambling. Hush money in its truest sense for the land between the two large cities, which James Carville has called Alabama.

Or as Wozniak told Times-Shamrock newspapers, "The bill adds another layer of confidence for small-town Pennsylvania that big cities will not again jump ahead of them in line for help with projects." .

His bill must now clear the Senate Appropriations Committee before it can be called for a vote.

Meanwhile, the two large cities are still far from gambling meccas. Pittsburgh's slots parlor - Majestic Star - isn't slated to open until mid-2009 and the opening of two Philadelphia casinos, Foxwoods and SugarHouse, is delayed by neighborhood opposition.

In fact, the whole Louis DeNaples licensing mess may long be over before Philly's casinos start raking in the dough. Not

Candidates looking to replace retiring state Sen. Vince Fumo (D-Philadelphia), one of the architects of the slots law, are all over the place on the matter.

The lone Republican running, Jack Morley, wants both slots parlors built immediately, according to the Philly Daily News.

Among the Democrats: Community activist Anne Dicker, who helped found Casino-Free Philadelphia, doesn't want them build them at all. Attorney Larry Farnese wants public hearings on possibly moving them someplace else in the city. And union business manager John Dougherty wants the neighbors satisfied before the slots parlors are built.

The trio will face each other in the April 22 primary.

Labels: , , ,

 |  1 comments  |  |  RSS Feed | Add to Technorati Favorites

Saturday, March 15, 2008
Posted 11:10 PM by

Time to put the blinders on in Slotsylvania

Former Gaming Control Board Chairman Tad Decker (left) and State Police Commissioner Jeff Miller (right)We may never know who lied - the state police commander or the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board - if key lawmakers like Jane Earll get their way.

After first denying there was a problem with the way the state licenses its slots parlor owners, Earll (R-Erie) now says she's willing to hold hearings in light of the four perjury charges filed against slots parlor owner Louis DeNaples.

However, she does not want them to be about the conflicting testimony of state officials on how DeNaples got his license because "I'm not sure where that (investigation) gets us constructively."

As chairwoman of the Senate's Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee, Earll is crafting the Senate GOP's plans to address the matter. "I have no desire to turn any of this into a side circus," she said.

Oops, too late.

The time for that was before the Gaming Control Board members unanimously handed DeNaples a license after a grand jury says he allegedly lied to the board about his ties to two reputed mobsters and two political fixers.

Adding to this freaky show is the fact that before DeNaples received his license he gave as much as $1.1 million an campaign contributions to the state's top officials. Among them, Gov. Ed Rendell and state Attorney Tom Corbett, who have refused to return DeNaples' money since his indictment.

The Dunmore billionaire and former federal felon has denied any wrongdoing, but has been barred from the $412 million Mt. Airy Casino Resort he owns until the charges are resolved.

Earll, whose district is home to Presque Isle Downs & Casino, voted to legalize slot machines in 2004. As chairwoman, she has refused to bring any reform legislation up for a vote in her committee for more than a year - defying many within her party who have called for change.

She also stopped an effort last October - three months before DeNaples' indictment - to put state police in charge of slot licensee background investigations, saying, "I don't see any glaring problems that have been brought to light by today's testimony that we need to rush to fix."

This being Slotsylvania, she's clearly trying to sweep things under the rug, telling the Associated Press that the conflicting accounts about what was shared between the gaming board and state police while vetting DeNaples is akin to "he said, she said."

It's much more than that.

Col. Jeffrey Miller, the Pennsylvania State Police commissioner, testified March 4 before the Senate and House Appropriations Committees that at least some of the state's seven Control Board members knew the state police were investigating DeNaples for lying to them, but they publicly voted to award him a slots parlor license anyway on Dec. 20, 2006.

In fact, Miller said, the board's own privately-hired background investigators were the ones who tipped the staties and the Feds off in the first place. (The Feds' case was later thrown for a loop when prosecuting U.S. Attorney Tom Marino left office and took a job with DeNaples.)

The Control Board's former chairman, attorney Thomas A. "Tad" Decker, has denied that the control board knew DeNaples was lying. "We didn't send a perjury referral," Decker told the Scranton Times-Tribune on March 7. "This is just flat out not true."

Yet, Sen. Robert J. Mellow, the Democratic leader from Lackawanna County and a longtime friend of DeNaples, called any Senate perjury investigation a "slippery slope."

"All we'll be doing is taking up our time policing (testimony) as opposed to doing public policy," Mellow, who voted for the slots law, told the AP.

However, Republican House leader Sam Smith, of Jefferson County, "It's hard to look at that stuff and not think, 'Somebody isn't being 100 percent truthful here.'"

Some lawmakers say they believe that lying to a legislative committee is a crime. Good luck proving that, since none of the PGCB members were sworn in during their House appropriations hearing last month.

It was an oversight and a mistake, David Atkinson, a committee spokesman, said then.

Sixty-eight House Republicans signed a letter to House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia) this week asking the Appropriations Committee chairman to recall the Control Board members. "The members and the public deserve to be told honest and truthful answers from this regulatory agency." says the letter, which was released Friday

Like Earll, House Gaming Oversight Committee Chairman Harold James (D-Philadelphia) has been slow to call for hearings into the DeNaples' matter, even though Evans testified he asked him to look into it last month. James told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week he is gathering information from both agencies and will call a hearing to look into it.

And just like Earll, James hasn't let any slots law reform bills comes up in his committee for more than a year.

Meanwhile, slots parlor owners - including DeNaples, may be barred by law from contributing to political campaigns, but are still allowed to lobby lawmakers largely in secret.

Things are getting so ugly in Slotsylvania, that politicians here can no longer point at Louisiana as more corrupt than they are, wrotes Allentown Morning Call columnist Paul Carpenter.

"The entire slots scam was ballyhooed from the start as a razzle-dazzle way to ease local school taxes," Carpenter wrote. "That was the worst fraud of all."


For more about Louis DeNaples and to read my complete take on this long-predicted Slotsylvania snafu, click here.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

 |  1 comments  |  |  RSS Feed | Add to Technorati Favorites

Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Posted 10:09 PM by

Lobbyists spent $53.5M on N.J. lawmakers in '07

Lobbyists gave just $31,666 in specific gifts to New Jersey lawmakers last year, compared to an estimated $2 million in undeclared gifts to their Pennsylvania counterparts.Lobbyists spent $53.5 million last year trying to sway New Jersey lawmakers, down $1.8 million from 2006, a new state report says.

I'd love to give you comparable numbers for Pennsylvania, but they don't exist. More on that in a bit.

Out of all that money, the lobbyists only passed $31,666 in direct benefits to New Jersey lawmakers, down from $45,500 in 2006 and from $79,509 in 1997, according to the records. Under state law, benefit passing includes meals, entertainment, gifts, travel and lodging.

The biggest recipient of that surprisingly small largesse was Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, chairman of the Assembly committee overseeing telecommunications and utilities. He accepted $1,126 in gifts last year from lobbyists. All but $280 came from industries he oversees, according to the Associated Press.

Still, Ev Liebman, of the watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action, told the AP, "It's very troubling when we have a system that allows special interests and their money to dominate the legislative process and to get the kind of access to legislators, particularly powerful legislators, that's simply not available to rate payers, those of us who pay the bills."

Across the Delaware River, Pennsylvania no longer breaks down its total lobbying numbers for the public to inspect thanks to a two-year-old lobbyist disclosure law, which appears to have done more to obfuscate lobbying expenditures than it did to expose them.

Pennsylvania does now have an online database of quarterly expense reports filed by lobbyists, but the regulations on how the lobbyists should fill out the state-mandated forms still are not finalized.

I do know, thanks to an Associated Press analysis of the state data, that lobbyists spent $37 million in Pennsylvania during the first six months of 2007, of which nearly $1 million went to state officials for meals, plane tickets, hotel rooms and other gifts.

Now, multiply that by two and compare it to the $31,666 spent by lobbyists in New Jersey.

What's the difference between the two states? New Jersey's law requires that every gift to a legislator from a lobbyist must be spelled out along with the exact amount of money spent.

Pennsylvania's law does not.

Am I wrong to think the Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell's administration are selling us out, and to say that we now have the best government lobbying money can secretly buy?

For example, Pennsylvania offered the movie industry this year a 25 percent tax credit on TV shows and films that spend at least 60 percent of their total budget in the Commonwealth. The program's cost is capped at $75 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

How did Hollywood qualify for the break? Lobbyists Leslie Merrill McCombs, a former Fox TV reporter in Pittsburgh, and Mike Veon, a once-powerful Democratic state representative from Beaver County, lobbied for it on behalf of Lionsgate, a leading independent film and TV production company based in Santa Monica, Calif.

That isn't what angered state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, though.

It's the fact that McCombs didn't publicly declare that she was working on behalf of Lionsgate in her quarterly reports until after the tax break was granted. McCombs called it a "technical and brief noncompliance" that was later corrected.

"Clearly, we cannot permit lobbyists to hide what is spent on influencing the Governor and members of the General Assembly," Piccola (R-Dauphin) said in a Sept. 5 written statement. "Accountability is the key to reestablishing the public's trust in government. People who influence the law should not be above it."

Piccola's committee hired private investigators for $120 an hour to probe whether loopholes in the state's lobbying and ethics laws were exploited and to see if Veon violated a state prohibition against former lawmakwers lobbying their colleagues within a year of leaving office.

Veon was voted out of office in November 2006 after being the lone lawmaker in the state to vote against repealing the 2005 legislative pay raise. He filed to lobby on behalf of Lionsgate six months later, but state records say he didn't spend a dime.

In an e-mail to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Veon said, "I am confident that any review of the facts and the record will find that at no time ... have I lobbied anyone in the House of Representatives."

Meanwhile, McCombs lashed out at Piccola for suggesting she had an inappropriate relationship with Gov. Rendell. The governor has said he is friends with McCombs, her husband and son and has attended Pittsburgh-area sporting events with the family.

All of this was meant as but an illustration. The $75 million tax break is mere chump change by comparison to what's at stake by expanding the state's fledgling slot machine gamling industry so that it includes table games.

I did a cursory examination of the database last month and found that gambling interests spent at least $2.6 million last year to lobby lawmakers and Rendell's administration.

I say at least, because I suspect more money - possibly a lot more - is hidden from public view by virtue of gambling interests hiring one lobbyist, who in turn hired another.

Two final thoughts: Why didn't Piccola refer the movie tax break case to state Attorney General Tom Corbett, whose office has a seven-attorney public corruption unit? After all, Corbett is also leading a committee that's spent the last year drafting the disclosure regulations the lobbyists will follow?

In an unrelated ethics matter, though, Corbett said this week he would not return at least $35,000 worth of campaign contributions from now-indicted slots parlor owner Louis DeNaples. Despite a grand jury investigation last year, DeNaples spent $67,375 last year lobbying for "casino gambling."

Given all that, is there any wonder why there's a lack of leadership on reforming the state slots law in the Legislature?

Labels: , , , , , ,

 |  0 comments  |  |  RSS Feed | Add to Technorati Favorites

Monday, March 10, 2008
Posted 9:30 PM by

D.A. to Slotsylvania A.G.: Return DeNaples' money

Tom Corbett (left), John Morganelli (right)Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli is calling on state Attorney General Tom Corbett to return all campaign contributions he received from now-indicted slots parlor owner Louis DeNaples.

"It is completely unacceptable to have the state's chief law enforcement officer financially tied to a person who is under indictment by a Pennsylvania grand jury for perjury, allegedly for lying about his ties to the mob and organized crime in order to obtain a gaming license," Morganelli wrote in a press release that arrived uninvited in my e-mail this morning. "Mr. Corbett's recalcitrance compromises the integrity of the Office of Attorney General."

Now put what Morganelli wrote through this prism: Morganelli is the lone announced Democrat running for state Attorney General. Corbett, the Republican incumbent, has already announced he's seeking re-election.

Corbett has refused to return DeNaples' campaign contributions to his first campaign, saying through his spokesman that DeNaples has not been convicted of perjury.

DeNaples did, however, plead no contest to a federal felony 30 years ago on a charge that he defrauded the federal government of $525,000 for cleanup work associated with Hurricane Agnes - a crime that did not bar him from obtaining a slots parlor license from the state Gaming Control Board.

Before he got the license, though, the Dunmore billionaire spread a lot of money around among the state's top elected officials. My research flound contributions from DeNaples of at least $679,375, but the state's records online are incomplete - perhaps purposely so. Some newspapers have reported that DeNaples' contributions topped $1.1 million.

At least $35,000 of DeNaples' money went to Corbett's campaign, state records show. Morganelli cites an additional $5,000 contribution to Corbett on Jan. 20, 2005, which I've been unable to verify. He also cites a Philadelphia Inquirer report that says Corbett received $55,000.

Regardless of the amount, Morganelli is troubled that Corbett has not given the money back because the Attorney General's position is one in which even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest can cause problems.

While I agree with Morganelli's premise, I think he's playing politics with an issue that should transcend politics. This is about doing the right thing ethically, whether or not the law says the contributions were legal.

Corbett should never have accepted the money from a known felon with long-rumored mob ties, no matter how rich and generous he is. But since he did, Corbett should have given the money back as soon as DeNaples was indicted. To do less calls into question his character and the character of his office.

Now, Corbett's opened himself up to political games and, dare I say, possible federal investigation.

And before you ask, I am a registered Democrat but not an ardent one. I am, however, a rod-ass when it comes to issues of good government and ethics, something I have in common with many Republican friends.

That's why I'm also calling on Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, to give back the money DeNaples gave him, which amounted to at least $115,000. Fast Eddie set the bar by accepting that cash and is still sitting on $2.25 million even though he can't run for a third straight term as governor.

It's also why I agree with the Harrisburg Patriot-News blogger Brett Lieberman, who admonished Morganelli for failing to disclose his candidacy for attorney general in the same e-mail he sent statewide this morning attacking Corbett.

Rules are rules. As a district attorney, Morganelli should know that better than most.

Finally, it's also why I stand firmly against slots gambling in this state. Not because I'm anti-gambling, I actually love blackjack and poker, but because the law was passed in such an underhanded manner, bypassing all public comment, and then rammed through the Legislature by some of the state lawmakers who took campaign contributions from DeNaples.


I've been around a while as a blogger, but I must admit I was unfamiliar with the Web site until today.

On it, writer Bill Keisling posted today, "Gov. Ed Rendell has awarded his former law firm an extremely lucrative contract to act as special counsel in the proposed privatization of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and related matters, including the proposed change of Interstate 80 into a toll road.

"The law firm, Ballard, Spahr, Andrews and Ingersoll, of Philadelphia, has billed the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania approximately $1.8 million for turnpike privatization and related legal work from March 1, 2007 to January 8, 2008, state records show. An additional invoice has been submitted in February, bringing the actual total costs to date closer to $2 million."

I won't ruin the rest of it for you, other than to say Kiesling calls it a "no-bid, no-contract contract." Nice.

Labels: , , , , , ,

 |  1 comments  |  |  RSS Feed | Add to Technorati Favorites

Sunday, March 09, 2008
Posted 7:19 PM by

Something stinks in Slotsylvania

Pennsylvania Attorney General won't give back the $35,000 he accepted from Louis DeNaples, nor will he recuse himself from investigating DeNaples, his spokesman says.The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is now calling on state Attorney General Tom Corbett to conduct "a thorough investigation" into whether it was the state police or the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board that screwed up before Louis DeNaples was issued a slots parlor license.

"Everybody's pointing fingers at everybody else. But, clearly, the truth is not being served," the newspaper's Saturday editorial says.

I doubt the truth would be served if Corbett did launch a probe with his unproven seven-attorney gambling corruption unit.

That's because Corbett accepted at least $35,000 in campaign contributions from DeNaples, a Dunmore billionaire and admitted felon who now stands accused of perjury for lying about his alleged ties to two reputed mobsters and two political fixers.

Corbett, who is up for re-election this year, has "no plans to give the money back," his spokesman, Kevin Harley, told the Harrisburg Patriot News little more than a week ago.

Pressure is beginning to build, though, on him, Gov. Ed Rendell, state lawmakers and judges to give back the $1.1 million DeNaples gave their campaigns until he got his slots parlor license, according to the Tribune-Review.

My research says DeNaples contributed at least $679,335. The Scranton Times-Tribune puts DeNaples' contributions at $1,002,950.

"There was never anything hidden about" the contributions, DeNaples' spokesman Kevin Feeley told the Tribune-Review. "They were ... recorded under the proper campaign election law guidelines. They are perfectly legitimate."

They were also recorded shoddily by high-ranking state officials, the Department of State or both. For instance, newspapers often quote the amount of DeNaples' money that went to Corbett as $25,000.

However, a $10,000 donation by D&L Realty, one of DeNaples' many companies, to Friends of Tom Corbett on Jan. 27, 2004 does not appear in the state's online contribution database. It does, however, show up in that campaign committee's finance report with no mention in subsequent reports of the money being returned.

"There's only one good rule," Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, told the Tribune-Review, "Return the money by certified mail, immediately."

But Harley insists Corbett won't return the cash, nor will he recuse himself from any investigations involving DeNaples. "If an issue came up ... we would investigate it," he told the Tribune-Review.

Corbett has denied a conflict of interest exists and said he opted to let Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico pursue the perjury case against DeNaples because he had already prosecuted a couple of slots parlor applicants who illegally gave contributions after the state passed the law legalizing slot machines in 2004. They each received civil fines.

Corbett has a seven-lawyer corruption unit, which was established with slots gambling in mind. But it has yet to prosecute a single casino-related corruption case in two years.

Yet, Corbett said on Feb. 28, 2006, "By creating a Public Corruption Unit, the Attorney General's Office is putting a spotlight on investigating and prosecuting public corruption cases at a crucial time in our state's history when slot machines and casino gaming is about to become reality."

By the way, the Feds were also interested in DeNaples. But while his office was probing DeNaples, Tom Marino, the U.S. Attorney for Central Pennsylvania, was one of two legal references that DeNaples used on his slots parlor application. Marino recused himself when the information leaked publicly, resigned his office and now works directly for DeNaples.

Former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey summed the situation up nicely in the Tribune-Review, "To have contributions going to people who could have an influence on a license and have the gaming board ignore all signs along the way just stinks."

State Sen. Jake Corman told the newspaper that Corbett should probe, if necessary, but first Corman wants the state Senate to take a whack at finding out if either the state police or Gaming Control Board was being untruthful in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee about DeNaples.

"At a minimum someone has not been honest with this committee," said Corman, a Centre County Republican. "Someone made a decision to turn a blind eye on this DeNaples matter."

Sen. John Rafferty, whose Law & Justice Committee oversees the state police, is planning a hearing. He wants to do it with Sen. Jane Earll, R-Erie, who chairs a gambling oversight panel. Rafferty, R-Chester County, is viewed as pro state police. Earll, who has a casino in her district, is viewed as pro-gaming.

Earll stopped an effort last October to put state police in charge of slot licensee background investigations, saying, "I don't see any glaring problems that have been brought to light by today's testimony that we need to rush to fix."

She also has not let any slots reform legislation out of her committee in more than a year now.

It shouldn't be such a shock considering lawmakers are still being lobbied hard by the gambling industry - to the tune of at least $2.6 million last year, my research shows.

That includes the parent company of DeNaples' slots parlor, Mount Airy #1 L.L.C, which spent $67,375 lobbying lawmakers for "casino gambling" through the Philadelphia firm of S.R. Wojdak & Associates LP.


For more about Louis DeNaples and to read my complete take on this long-predicted Slotsylvania snafu, click here.

Labels: , , , , ,

 |  0 comments  |  |  RSS Feed | Add to Technorati Favorites

This Week's Rants | The Daily Rant Archives

Creative Commons License
The Daily Rant by Dave Ralis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.