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

Friday, March 14, 2008
Posted 11:47 PM by

Thy casinos' will be done, thy kingdom come in Slotsylvania?

Will the state's slots parlors get an exception to a proposed statewide indoor smoking ban?FOLLOW UP FRIDAY - Pennsylvania's casinos are likely spending their easily-earned lobbying money right now battling a proposed statewide ban on indoor smoking. But good luck trying to prove it.

The state's online database of lobbying expenditures doesn't allow you to search by the subject of what is being lobbyed for or against.

Nor do the lobbyists have to spell out who they gave gifts to, just their basic purpose and who their clients are. Sometimes, the lobbyists even ignore doing that.

The state's lobbying disclosure law doesn't require immediate disclosure either, just a quarterly expense report if the lobbyist spent more than $2,500. The next reports, covering Jan. 1 to March 31, aren't due until April 30th.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers and other officials don't have to file their annual statements of financial interests - reports spelling out what gifts they've received and what conflicts of interest they've had - until May 1.

By then, the indoor smoking ban debate may be over.

Even an annual report to the General Assembly outlining lobbying activities in 2007 with detailed information on registered principals, lobbying firms and lobbyists has not been posted online for the public to read.

And everyone in Slotsylvania simply shrugs and accepts it.

Is it any wonder Gov. Ed Rendell and state Attorney General Tom Corbett feel safe in refusing to give back denotions from a slots parlor owner who has since been indicted for lying about his mob ties?

Can't anyone in Harrisburg say pay-to-play?

I do know, thanks to my own research, that the casino companies spent at least $2.6 million last year to lobby the Legislature and Rendell's administration.

And I suspect lots of lobbying is going on right now because the slots parlors want a special state exemption from a proposed indoor smoking ban - even as Senate Bill 246 is being re-crafted by a panel of lawmakers as a compromise between competing bills that passed in the House and Senate last year.

Other gambling states such as New Jersey and Connecticut are pondering outright smoking bans in their casinos.

Their reason? Atlantic City baccarat dealer Kam Wong was awarded about $150,000 as disability pay and lost wages last month as worker's compensation - and additional amounts for future medical care - for the lung cancer she developed after 10 years of breathing secondhand smoke at the former Claridge Casino Hotel.

But during testimony before the state House and Senate conference committee on Thursday, casino owners pointed to dips in slot machine revenues at Delaware casinos after that state went smoke-free. Those casinos only recovered after they expanded to 24 hours of operation and added machines.

"The baseline went down 20 percent, and it's taken six years to get back," said David Jonas, president of Philadelphia Park Casino. If that happens here, the Legislature's goal of homeowner property tax cuts would be undermined, he and his industry colleagues said.

State Rep. Mike Gerber, a champion of a law with as few exceptions as possible, countered by accusing casino owners of "asking us to put your profits before the health of your workers and your patrons."

But Jonas also argued, "We understand the health hazards of direct smoking and the concerns expressed about secondhand smoke. A blanket smoking ban on casinos would be a disaster for the industry. ... You cannot burden the casino industry with an unnecessary obstacle to providing the revenue that you need [for property tax relief]."

Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) said the committee will begin its final deliberations at a public meeting scheduled for April 1.

Meanwhile, Quakertown - one of the largest towns in Greenleaf's district - last week became the latest of a growing number of municipalities across the state to locally ban smoking outdoors in their parks. Anyone caught lighting a pipe, cigar or cigarette faces a fine of up to $600 or 30 days in jail.

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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?

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Monday, February 18, 2008
Posted 11:20 PM by

Pa. gambling interests spent more than $2.6M lobbying in '07

Which gambling-related companies are still lobbying in Slotsylvania? Click on this image to find out.Gambling interests in Pennsylvania spent at least $2.6 million last year to sway state lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, according to the state's own records.

I say at least, because state officials have done their best to hide this information from the public without being drummed out of office for failing to disclose it.

So, they did the next best thing, they obfuscated, burying those expenses in with perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars that companies with other interests spent last year to influence Harrisburg.

The $2,628,898 in lobbying expenses I calculated tonight came from the state's lobbying expenditure database and I'm sure represent a large portion, but not all, of the money spent last year solely by companies with gambling interests.

I used the state Senate's old lobbying database, which named the companies who lobbied for gambling-related reasons in 2003 to 2006. I then looked those companies up in the new state lobbying expenditure database, which covers both the House and the Senate as well as Rendell's administration.

In the process, I found three new entities with gambling interests that spent money lobbying last year but not the year before, which are denoted in this chart with an asterisk. They are:

  • Casino Free Philadelphia, a not-for-profit corporation, spent $55,160 on lobbying in 2007 hoping to defeat the casinos planned for the city.

  • Harrah's Operating Co., Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Harrah's Entertainment, which has stopped lobbying under that name in the state. It spent $122,200 last year lobbying.

  • The Pennsylvania Family Council shares the same Web site and president as the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which no longer lobbies in the state under that name. It spent $208,111, but like many of the lobbying companies whose expense reports I checked today, it did not name the reasons why.

    PFC's Web site, however, currently features a link to the same story I ranted about Sunday, namely a Citizen's Voice article that says lobbyists for holders and seekers of casino licenses spent nearly $1.7 million last year to influence state lawmakers.

I knew the $1.7 million was only the tip of the iceberg. The only question now is how much bigger and dangerous is it below the surface?

I was going to include the chart of lobbying expense in this post, but Blogger just about had a heart attack at the complexity of the table. Instead, you just have to click here.

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Posted 8:25 PM by

Hey Slotsylvania: Look who's (still) lobbying now

Click on this image to access Pennsylvania's new lobbyist database.As I blogged yesterday, Pennsylvania has done its best to hide the 2007 lobbying expenses of gambling interests by lumping them into a database with all other lobbyists and special interests with no clear way to break them out separately.

After all, there is no better place to hide a tree than in a forest.

However, the powers-that-be in Slotsylvania forgot that the state Senate had a database of lobbyists which did breakout the lobbying expenses of gambling interests.

The list below represents 83 different gambling-related companies known to have spent a total of $16 million lobbying the 50 state senators between 2003 and 2006. I merely copied the names of the companies down, alphabetized the list and then eliminated all the duplication.

I then checked each name with the state's new lobbying expenditure database and hyperlinked the names I found there with the company's lobbying expense reports.

This list is by no means complete. For instance, I did not include any names listed in a short-lived executive branch lobbyist database, since the data contained there did not breakdown the reason why the companies were lobbying Gov. Ed Rendell's administration.

For now, it's not too bad for a do-it-yourself Slotsylvania lobbying guide and is probably the best list available to the public currently.

New gambling interests not recorded in the Senate's database but found/stumbled upon in the statewide one are denoted with an asterisk.

I will be adding a complete breakdown of the lobbying expenses I found later tonight. Watch for it.

UPDATE: To read my later blog post on the lobbying reports of gambling interests, click here. To see a chart of which gambling interests lobbied and how much they spent, click here.


Aztar Corporation
100% Purses, Inc., dba Freedom Park
Alliance Bally Gaming
American Casinos, Inc.
Ameristar Casinos, Inc.
Aztar Corporation
Bally Technology, Inc.
Balyasny Asset Management
Barden Nevada Gaming LLC
Bedford Downs Management Corporation
Berman DeValerio Pease Tabacco Burt & Pucillo
Betson Coin Op Distributing Co., Inc.
Blank Rome, LLP
Boyd Gaming Corporation
Bruce Hironimus
Callowhill Center Associates
Casino Free Philadelphia*
Centaur, Inc.
Champion Coin
Chance Enterprises
Charles J. Betters
Chester Downs and Marina, LLC
Community Education Partners
Cyberview Technology
Delaware Casino Development
Downs Racing, L.P.
Emerald Strategies, Inc.
FMC Corporation
Game Tech International
Gaming Laboratories International
Greenwood Racing Inc.
Harrah's Entertainment
Harrah's Operating Co., Inc.*
HSP Gaming
IGT / On-Line Entertainment
International Game Technology
Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc.
Janus - St. George, Ltd.
JCM American Corporation
Keystone Gaming Technologies, Inc.*
Las Vegas Sands, Inc.
MEC Pennsylvania Racing, Inc.
Mount Airy #1, LLC
MTR Gaming
Multimedia Games
Nemocolin Woodlands Resort & Spa
Oberthur Gaming Technologies
PA Amusement and Music Machine Association
PA Bowling Centers Association
PA Council of Churches
PA Family Institute
PA Family Council*
PA Federation of Fraternal and Social Organizations
PA Harness Horseman's Association
PA Horse Breeders Association
PA Horseman's Benevolent Protection Association
PA Sands, Venetian
PA Thoroughbred Horseman's Association
Palisades Park Project
Park Place / Caesars Entertainment
Parkside Gaming
Penn National Gaming, Inc.
Philadelphia Park Racetrack
Pinnacle Entertainment
Pittsburgh Palisades Park LLC
Pittsburgh Penguins
Pocono Raceway
Presque Isle Downs, Inc.
PTP Racing LLP
Resorts USA, Inc. now Bushkill Group
Riverwalk Casino, LP
Scientific Games International
Standardbred Breeders Association of PA
Standing Stone Gaming
Teach for America
The Mohegan Gaming Tribal Authority
Trump Entertainment and Resorts, Inc. (Now terminated)
Trump Hotels and Casinos Inc.
Valley View Downs LP
Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino
Vorum Stables, LLC
Washington Trotting Association, Inc. DBA Meadows Racetrack & Casino*
Western Pennsylvania Racing Associates
Winner International Corporation
WMS Gaming, Inc.
Wyandotte Nation

*New in 2007

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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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