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

Thursday, July 20, 2006
Posted 10:56 PM by

Pa. gaming board overrides intent of slots law

Regulators let a casino lobbyist, who hid his interest in a slot machine distributorship behind his kids' names, continue to give money to politicians despite a state ban on campaign contributions from gambling-related companies.

Lobbyist Stephen Wojdak will be able to keep his interest in a slot machine distributorship and continute to give political contributions to state lawmakers thanks to the Gaming Control Board.Weakening an already ridiculously wimpy industry-written 2004 law legalizing slot machines in Pennsylvania, the state Gaming Control Board today let a casino lobbyist continue to make political contributions even though his two minor children are listed as having a financial interest in a slot machine distributorship.

Stephen R. Wojdak has given more than $50,000 to political campaigns or political action committees since Liberty Gaming Distributors LP filed its application for a state license in February, the Associated Press reported. (For a complete list of his contributions for the last three years, click here.)

Wojdak's name does not appear on Liberty's application, nor is he listed on the gaming board's Web site as having any connection any of the 16 companies now licensed to distribute slot machines in the state.

The 2004 law legalizing slot machines was supposed to bar anyone with an interest in gambling from making political contributions. But lucky for Wojdak, it did not prevent anyone with such ties from lobbying people with the power to decide the future of gambling in the state.

Is it any wonder now why state Sen. Vince Fumo held up the state budget last month in the hope he could strengthen the slots law?

Wojdak spent at least some of the $812,000 he received last year to lobby state lawmakers and executive branch officials on behalf of his gambling-related clients. They included Delaware Casino Development ($108,136), Delaware River Development Group ($613), the PA Thoroughbred Horseman's Association ($13,132), Community Education Partners ($7,831), state records show.

And his was but a small part of the $4.5 million spent last year by lobbyists with ties to gambling-related companies.

I'd love to tell you which lawmakers received all that money, but Pennsylvania's lobbying laws do not require it and neither does a "lobbying reform" bill approved by the state House last month.

Meanwhile, no other state in the nation with gambling requires slot machine distributors. They just let their casinos buy machines directly from manufacturers. So the use of in-state middlemen is simply a ploy to payback political friends of the lawmakers - one the state Senate tried but failed to do away with last month.

Despite all of that, the gaming board approved Liberty Gaming's application for a distributor license today. But the board attached conditions designed to prevent Wojdak from using money in the trust he set up for his children.

"He's out of it," board chairman Tad Decker told reporters following the meeting. "His children are beneficiaries of it. Draw your own conclusions."

No Tad, that's what we pay the board to do.

At least we used to. The board itself is running out of money, and given this decision, that might not be a bad thing.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Posted 10:15 PM by

Welcome back to the 18th century

A blackout served as a time machine and began a cautionary tale of two very different utilities.

This is me sitting in my livingroom at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday waiting for my power to come back on - five hours into a blackout. It wasn't restored until about 12 hours later.It wasn't a hurricane.

Or even a flood.

It was just a summer thunderstorm, albeit a bad one, at about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. Suddenly more than 400,000 electric customers in Pennsylvania, including yours truly, spent the next nearly 18 hours in the 18th century.

I thought I was ready. I had plenty of flashlights. I quickly learned you don't want to hold a flashlight after about an hour of sitting and waiting for the power to come back on.

Forutunately, candles and a hurricane lamp I use largely for decoration worked great. Maybe the first Philadelphians knew what they were doing after all?

A battery-powered 10-inch fan kept me relatively cool overnight and a hand-crank powered radio kept me entertained, if not informed. (I couldn't get KYW 1060AM and the Philly area has no other news station.)I was even able to save some of the food from my fridge and freezer in a cooler I bought a few weeks ago for a camping trip.

I live five minutes from work, so naturally the power was out there too when I arrived at 4 a.m. The Web site that employs me had its power restored at about 10 a.m. Throughout the day, PECO repeatedly issued statements updating its efforts to restore power, slow as it was.

I had to wait until nearly 3 p.m. for my home to rejoin the 21st century. Surprise, surprise. The cable TV and my modem were up again too. I should have known it was too good to last, though.

At 5 p.m. Comcast's rubber band broke again. After wading through a 10 minute spiel on the phone, which actually admitted to an outtage - although the company would never issue a press release acknowledging it - I finally got a customer rep on the line.

She was nice and as a helpful as she could be. Comcast has a tipping point in my era. The company must get 20 complaints from customers before declaring a problem an outage and sending out a true technician.

Help would be on its way, she said, then offered me a three-day rebate on my cable bill - assuming service would not be restored until tomorrow.

It's finally back on as I write this. Two trash bags filled with "thawed" food later and I'm almost recovered, but very tired. I only wish the electric company would pay for my food too.


Monday, July 17, 2006
Posted 10:13 PM by

Diamond under pressure by petition requirement

Russ Diamond, an independent candidate for Pennsylvania governor, needs help gathering signatures if he's going to make it onto the November ballot.I like Russ Diamond. He's smart, he's got chutzpah and a sense of humor.

That's why today I devote my blog to his gubernatorial candidacy.

He's trying to do the near-impossible: collect enough signatures on nominating petitions to qualify him for a spot on the statewide ballot as an independent/third party candidate.

Ralph Nader couldn't do it when he ran for president atop the Green Party ticket in 2004. Ross Perot only managed to do it with the help of Democrats.

Under a state-required mathematical formula - 2 percent of the ballots cast for the largest vote-getter in the last statewide election - Russ needs at least 67,070 valid signatures by Aug. 1 to make it happen.

Right now he only has about 20,000. He deserves a lot more.

If he were a Republican or a Democrat he would only need 2,000 signatures. But Pennsylvania law stacks the deck against free thinking political interlopers.

Diamond helped launch the drive that ousted 17 incumbent state lawmakers in the May primary by organizing PaCleanSweep last July in response to the pay raise legislators voted themselves and then illegally took it early.

The pay hike/jacking has since been repealed, but lawmakers continue to use the backdoor methods they employed to pass it on other legislation - most recently with a farce of a bill for lobbying "reform."

Russ wants to change that. He hates the climate of legitimized corruption that has plagued Pennsylvania since President Richard Nixon's administration. The lasting legacy of Watergate here is that the state still sets no limits on campaign contributions.

For that reason alone it would at least be entertaining to see him goad Gov. Ed Rendell in a three-way debate, especially given Republican Lynn Swann's inability to connect with already angry voters.

Russ doesn't have that problem. He may look like a career politician - he dresses the part - however, he's anything but one.

A former musician who opened his own studio, he's hip enough to use the Internet as his primary means of getting the word out. He read blogs and political message forums daily, and even offers RSS feeds on his own Web site. Yet, he is mainstream enough to have been named "Citizen of the Year" by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

To circulate a petition on his behalf, click here.


Sunday, July 16, 2006
Posted 10:10 PM by

TWA 800 - 10 years later

It's been 10 years since TWA flight 800 exploded after taking off for New York, bound for France. I covered the crash in Montoursville, where an entire high school French club was killed.I can hardly believe it's been 10 years since I covered the explosion that blew the nose off TWA flight 800 in New York, killing all aboard - including an entire high school French club from Montoursville, Pa.

In some ways it feels longer - a lifetime in this post 9/11 world, where terrorism worries rather than mechanical error have replaced most fears in the minds of foreign travellers flying out of New York.

At the time, some - like former ABC correspondant Pierre Salinger - thought it might have been an errant missile that accidentally shot down the airliner.

But that never made any sense to me.

Missiles destroy indiscriminately. They don't blow the front off a plane, leaving the rest to continue its ascent until gravity finally beat momentum, plunging the doomed jet into the Atlantic Ocean.

In reality, a short-circuit sent a spark into plane's gas tank, ingniting highly volatile fumes, the Federal Aviation Administration found.

I don't know which is worse: that 230 people lost their lives in a tragic but preventable mechanical accident, or that some bean-counters have decided that it's still cost-efficient not to fix the issue in every American passenger jet.

That's what CNN reported tonight, noting that a fuel tank explosion still happens on average every four and a half years.

I can't help but wonder what Dith Pran, the Cambodian-native and New York Times photographer made famous in Sydney Schanberg's "The Killing Fields," thinks of that.

I ran into Pran in Montoursville that day and it stopped me in my tracks. I couldn't help but wonder why a man who witnessed so much murder, madness and horror in his own homeland would willingly cover such a story in his adopted home.

Then I think about the grandfather I interviewed that day. I remember how his rock-hard hands remained still, but his chin quivered as he told me about the granddaughter he had outlived.

If the focus of all the billions of dollars in anti-terrorism efforts boils down to safety, it seems incredible to me that a known design flaw should still be allowed.


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