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

Saturday, August 05, 2006
Posted 8:24 PM by

Slots of anger over gambling reform

A Pittsburgh radio station suddenly became the epicenter of debate this week over Pennsylvania's slots law.

Did state Sen. Vince Fumo really say he would favor repealing the state slots law?I received an e-mail today from CasinoFreePA coordinator Dianne Berlin, telling me that state Sen. Vince Fumo would be more than willing to repeal the flawed law that legalized slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania.

Although I doubt it, Fumo allegedly made the comment Friday without any prodding at the start of a call-in show on Pittsburgh radio station KDKA.

The station hasn't posted the soundbite on its Web site and Fumo's Web site makes no mention of it either.

Instead, the Philly Democrat's site contains a letter he wrote to state Sen. Jane Orie (R-Allegheny) this week criticizing her for misstating his position on reforming the two-year-old slots law.

"I wish to restate that contrary to your statements, I have never been corruptly motivated in supporting any policy matter related to gaming," Fumo's letter says.

State Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheney, wants Gov. Ed Rendell to call a special session to reform the state's slots law.It later adds, "You have also gone so far as to attempt to attack the character of Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin. Please know that Chairman Rubin has never been accused of wrongdoing and has an impeccable reputation as a public official. In fact, he has repeatedly received the support from your caucus as Chairman of the Turnpike Commission. He is an investor in a gaming company - I am not. I neither control nor direct Chairman Rubin's personal investments. I am not aware of anyone who has suggested that he has used his office to gain improper influence. Furthermore, contrary to your statement, Rubin's wife has not worked in my office in over 2 years."

Rubin, a Fumo ally, is part owner of CGR Gaming Associates L.P, a slot machine distributorship that received a license last week from the state Gaming Control Board.

Rubin's wife, Ruth Arnao, used to be Fumo's chief of staff, but now runs the nonprofit Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods in South Philadelphia.

Fumo's connection to the nonprofit through Arnao has been the subject of a federal investigation into whether the lawmaker coerced $17 million for it from PECO Energy and then dropped his opposition to the electric giant's business plans.

The state Gaming Control Board has banned Arnao from having anything to do with the company her husband has invested in.

How reassuring.

To Orie and other Senate Republicans the whole slots deal is starting to stink to high heaven. They want Gov. Ed Rendell to call a special legislative session this month to reform the law.

"We don't need a special session," Rendell insisted on Marty Griffin's talk show on KDKA. "All they have to do is contact their leaders. There's no law saying they can't sit in August. They need a special session for them to get back to work? I can call a special session but I can't force them to come."

But Orie disagreed, telling host Fred Honsberger on the same station the governor is being "disengenious" because only he holds the power to force lawmakers back from their summer vacation early.

"I don't want to see licenses issued until we have reforms in place," Orie said.

Honsberger had the presence of mine to pit Orie against Rendell on his show and got the governor to illicit this promise: "If the Republican leadership calls everybody back and there's not a quorum, I'll call a special session. ... You have my word."

Rendell also said he vetoed a previous reform bill, S.B. 1209 of 2004, because it would have let "parents and siblings of public officials to have direct and unlimited interests" in a casino.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said he would only call a special session to reform the state's slots law if legislative leaders, two of whom were ousted by voters in May, are unable to bring their membership back to Harrisburg.In an ironic twist, two of that bill's authors, Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer and Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, are the ones who would now have to call their fellow lawmakers back to the capitol.

Both Brightbill and Jubelirer lost their seats in the May primary, primarily for pushing last year's now-repealed pay raise into law.


Friday, August 04, 2006
Posted 8:32 PM by

The truth is now malleable

I don't even like it when the public gets to pick the music from a juke box. Do you think I really want someone with an ax to grind telling me what the truth is?History is written by the victors they say.

If so, Wikipedia is probably about as accurate as the fictional Ministry of Propaganda in George Orwell's "1984."

If only Orwell could see us now.

Twenty two years after that date, and nearly 60 years since 1948 - the year he was actually writing about, Orwell would have found us more than willing to surrender our freedom for a false sense of security.

In a population already tracked by our Social Security numbers, we're now moving toward a national identification card.

Anyone can be kept from boarding a plane if a computer says so.

Our one-party-run state is angry \other one-party-run states. Alliances shift. Old enemies - even terroristic states - are suddenly our friends.

And anyone who complains that our leaders are lying is either smeared, outted or branded unpatriotic. Journalists are voluntary accomplices.

It isn't terrorism that does that. It's fear.

My only hope is that a decade or so from now, historians look back on what was written in Wikipedia using's Wayback Machine site.

That's assuming it still exists by then. If not history will simply be overwritten.


Thursday, August 03, 2006
Posted 10:13 PM by

Gambling with Pa.'s future

Pennsylvania's lawmakers are finally lining up to fix the state's lemon of a slots law. They only waited until the last month before the first licensed is to be issued.It looks like slot machine gambling in Pennsylvania has finally become a political issue - only two years too late.

Republican state Senators now want to prevent the Gaming Control Board from starting to issue any of the 14 slot machine parlor licenses next month as planned until after the Legislature has a chance to fix the 2004 law legalizing them.

Finally. It's about damn time.

If you ask me, the fix was in two-years-ago when lawmakers passed that law in the middle of the night during the July 4th holiday weekend without any public comment, rather than risk putting the controversial issue to a statewide referendum.

Not only was this lemon of a law written by lobbyists and passed illegally, it contained a provision that bypassed the state's Ethics Law and allowed legislators to own up to 1 percent of a slots parlor.

Now, a group of 13 Senators has introduced a package of 21 bills that are supposed to close that loophole, increase accountability of the gaming board and enhance oversight by the state Attorney General and lawmakers.

Good luck trying to find them on the Legislature's Web site. I couldn't.

"It is clear that Pennsylvania's statute is defective and has facilitated the 'appearance of impropriety' in the licensure process," Piccola said. "The defects in the law which made it ripe for political influence and manipulation must be reformed."

He later added, "I am calling on (chairman Tad Decker) and the rest of the gaming board to cease the issuance of any licenses for anything until the end of October so these legislative and procedural issues can be resolved."

The board had planned to start issuing licenses next month.

"A lot of this is election-year campaigning against the governor," Christopher Craig, a lawyer for Sen. Vince Fumo, D-Philadelphia, told the Association Press.

Rendell championed slots gambling and used the state's annual share of $1 billion to provide a modicum of property tax relief.

I agree with Craig somewhat.

If Republicans wanted this bill rewritten why did they wait until a month before the first license is to be issued? After all, they have a majority in both the state House and Senate.

Yet, state Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks County, has been the lone vocal opponent to the law in the last two years.

Partisan politics also doesn't explain why Craig's boss, Fumo, held up passage of the state budget a month ago to try and fix the slots law last month.

Nor does it explain why Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann, who said he was against gambling, won't overturn it because he believes the Legislature's 2004 vote of approval reflects popular support.

Nor does it explain why Fumo's fellow Democratic senators, Sean Logan of Allegheny County and Jay Costa of Pittsburgh, also held a press conference on Wednesday to promote their own reform plan, according to the Post-Gazette.

As I first reported in May, the slots law barred licensee hopefuls from making political contributions after years of gambling interests donating millions to the state top politicians to get the law passed. However, the law did not prevent gambling interests from spending $4.5 million last year to lobby state leaders.

Now, Logan and Costa want to ban lobbying too because, "They will get people from a lobbying firm to give money to us on their behalf," Logan said.

Hate to say I told you so, but I did.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Posted 9:57 PM by

Habay heads to the slammer

Former Pennsylvania lawmaker Jeff Habay thought he was above the law. He got a rude awakening today.Nothing illustrates the desperate need to reforming Pennsylvania's Legislature like the incarceration of former State Rep. Jeff Habay, who had his office staff stuff campaign envelopes using a PennDOT mailing list on state time.

Habay, 40, a six-term Republican from Alleghney County, was convicted in December of conflict of interest and resigned from his House seat when he was given at least a six month sentence in February.

But instead of going straight to jail then, Habay had hoped to delay his imprisonment until after a trial on an unrelated charge that he falsely claimed he was mailed an envelope containing white powder - possibly anthrax - by one of several constituents who wanted a judge to order an audit of Habay's political action committee.

Prosecutors allege Habay made up the fake anthrax attack to smear constituent George Radich, whose wife formerly worked for Habay.

Habay maintains his innocence and declined a plea deal in the false claim case even though it would have carried no additional jail time.

Instead, Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning said it appeared Habay was using delays in the anthrax case to postpone his sentence, so he sent him to jail today over the objections of the ex-lawmaker's lawyer.

Attorney Ken Snarey had argued for a few more days of freedom for his client, noting that Habay's father is dying of bone cancer and that Habay had booked a hall for his son's fourth birthday on Friday.

The judge wouldn't have it.

Snarey said he plans to appeal Habay's conviction to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Once that happens, the appeals court could decide to let Habay out on bond while the appeal was pending.

We've seen that before. Anybody remember the case of former state Rep. Tom Druce?

Slot machine distributor cries foul

A group of high-powered Pittsburgh politicos and business folks who won one of 16 lucrative licenses to serve as slot machine distributors for parlors will now give it back because they don't want to fight for business with even more powerful groups around the state.

Too bad. My heart bleeds.

One of 16 licensed slot machine distributors in Pennsylvania is crying foul because their group wasn't granted a monopoly."While we had hoped to operate a business dedicated to giving back to the community, it has become more and more apparent that the stated purpose of gaming in Pennsylvania has taken a back seat to politics," George Miles, a partner in New Century Entertainment, said in a prepared statement.

Besides Miles, the multimedia president of Pittsburgh public television station WQED, the partners include Jim Roddey, a Republican who was voted out as county executive in 2003, and Doris Carson Williams of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania.

The group's attorney, Charles P. McCullough, said politics influenced the state Gaming Control Board's June 28 decision to pitting the distributors against each other statewide instead of giving them a monopoly in certain parts of Pennsylvania - an issue left the board in a yearlong deadlock.

"There are a lot of people in this group with a lot of business and political acumen and it became obvious we were pretty much getting the shaft," McCullough said.

However, the Republican-controlled state Senate actually forced the board's hand by passing a bill to abolish the distributorships, which are not used in any other state with legalized gambling.

Democrats fought the bill tooth and nail, however, claiming it would create local jobs.

No. It will only create unnecessary middlemen, with licenses being granted as political paybacks. The least the state could do was force them to compete with each other.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Posted 10:52 PM by

Size does matter

Pennsylvania's Legislature needs to get a lot bigger - not smaller, as some propose - in order to become more cost efficient.

A bill that would shrink the size of Pennsylvania's Legislature won't cure its ills. The proposal would simply mean less representation with fewer pigs at the trough.A proposal to shrink Pennsylvania's 253 legislative districts down to 151 drew some praise today at a hearing in Pittsburgh, where lawmakers and gubernatorial hopeful Lynn Swann said it would make the state more cost efficient.

"By allowing the people of Pennsylvania to decide the size of our General Assembly, we can confront the growing cynicism about the work of state government," Swann testified today.

State Sen. John Pippy, who authored the proposed reduction in Senate Bill 890, said, "We can't just do business as usual and expect things to get better. We have to shake up the whole system."

I agree with his premise, but disagree on the downsizing.

Sure it sounds good now, but do you really expect the remaining lawmakers will lower our taxes? The state had a near $1 billion surplus last year and I know I didn't get a rebate check. Instead, renters like me got a tax hike.

All this means is we'll have 102 less yahoos deciding how to divvy up the $500 million the Legislature spends annually on itself.

And of course, that would also mean more Walking Around Money for the 151 lucky folks who still have a chair to sit in when the polka stops. I can only assume Pippy probably doesn't think he'll be one of the 102 former lawmakers out looking for work, probably as lobbyists (as if the capitol needs more of them).

At that rate, they'd just be rearrangeing deck chairs on the good ship Titanic.

Instead, I propose we do precisely the opposite. Let's add seats - say about 12.4 million of them.

Any reduction in the Legislature's size would take an amendment to the state Constitution - a time consuming and difficult process. If you're going to open up that can of worms anyway, let's give Pennsylvanians more say in their government - not less.

Here's a few ideas:

Initiative and referendum are not cities in Italy. Yet, even everyday Romans 2,000 years ago had more of a say in their government than we do now (Et tu, Brute?). Why not let the public suggest bills and actually get them on the ballot? The voters certainly can't do much worse than what their elected representatives have done in their stead so far.

Mandate true lobbying reform, not just an election year whitewash. (We're still the only state without a disclosure law.)

Set at least some campaign spending and contribution limits for crying out loud. Right now a rich donor can buy whatever he wants in this state - from legalized slot machine gambling, to huge tax benefits. It's still a House (and a Senate) for sale, no matter how many seats are in it.

Give independent and third-party candidates a fair shot. It's simply unAmerican to force someone who isn't a Republican or Democrat to gather more signatures than their opponents, especially given the failure of both major parties to get even one-quarter of the voting public to the polls in most elections. The playing field should be level.

Make the budgeting process more transparent and accountable by posting a true line-item budget - down to the dollar - on the Web for the public to read and COMMENT on. Even the Luzerne County commissioners - no fans of the state's Sunshine Act when I covered them - were forced into having real budget hearings.

Eliminate the Legislature's Sunshine Act and Open Records Law exclusions. What good is having fewer folks doing the public's work, if they can still do it behind closed doors and not tell us what they spend money on?

Finally, eliminate the backdoor maneuvering that let House and Senate leaders ignore the public, bully their membership and disregard the state Constitutionally-mandated three-day waiting/public airing period to pass a law.

Pennsylvania's Legislature needs to be squished under the weight of public scrutiny, not shrunk with little oversight.Even the National Rifle Association would agree that it's actually easier in Pennsylvania to quietly pass an unpopular or controversial law than to buy a handgun.

Without those loopholes, legislative leaders would not have been able to foist upon us the 2004 slots law, last year's legislative pay grab, the watered-down version of a lobbying disclosure bill the House passed this year, not to mention a secret pay hike for township supervisors.


Monday, July 31, 2006
Posted 11:23 PM by

Diamond quits, Santorum shifts gears

Reformer Russ Diamond won't run for Pennsylvania governor and is planning to dissolve PaCleanSweep. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and the national GOP have started playing games here.

Russ Diamond was unable to garner enough signatures to run as an independent candidate for Pennsylvania governor and will be disband PaCleanSweep.Russ Diamond abandoned his bid today to become an independent candidate for Pennsylvania governor after garnering just 38,322 of the 67,070 signatures he would need to get on the Nov. 7 ballot.

"You can go ahead and call this race," the Annville businessman and former musician told the Associated Press.

Diamond's announcement came a day before the state deadline for filing petitions. Pennsylvania requires a overly heavy burden for independent statewide candidates - mandating that they receive at least 2 percent of the top vote getter in the last statewide election.

Republican and Democratic candidates need only garner 2,000 signatures of registered voters to get their names on the ballot.

Although Diamond vowed to remain politically active, he has filed papers to dissolve PaCleanSweep. The reform-minded group he founded can claim at least some credit for the defeat of 17 incumbent legislators in May following last year's pay raise debacle.

"Time will tell what's able to rise from the ashes," Diamond said.

Diamond's campaign Web site was changed last night to read, "Thank you for helping us collect 38,322 signatures. In any other year, it would have been more than enough. We'll be posting the top circulators here within a few days. Meanwhile, please consider helping us pay the bills."

PaCleanSweep's Web site did not mention the group is disbanding.

The bar was set unusually high for Diamond this year because of the record 3.4 million votes Democrat Bob Casey was elected state treasurer in 2004. Casey is now running against U.S. Senator Rick Santorum in the November election, and is far ahead in most polls.

Despite the Democrat's popularity, Santorum claimed Monday that Casey was running on name recognition alone. His late father, Robert Casey Sr., was a two-term governor from 1987 to 1995.

"When you elected Rick Santorum, you didn't elect someone who came from a proud political legacy. You didn't elect someone who had a great name in Pennsylvania politics," he said.

Meanwhile, Republican donors apparently contributed the $100,000 Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli, of Wilkes-Barre, said he spent while gathering signatures to get on the ballot.

The move is an apparent attempt to siphon liberal support away from Casey. It's not the first time the national GOP has tried this here.

U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum claims Democrat Bob Casey is trading on his family name. Meanwhile, national Republicans are supporting a Green Party candidate in hopes of siphoning off votes from Casey.In 2004, Republicans started filling independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader's coffers in the hopes he would get on the statewide ballot and steal votes from John Kerry.

It didn't work then. It won't work now.


Sunday, July 30, 2006
Posted 11:53 PM by

Slots of interesting stuff in Sunday papers

Mother doesn't go out any more
Just sits at home and rolls her spastic eyes
But every weekend through the door
Come words of wisdom from the world outside

- Joe Jackson, "Sunday Papers"

The Pocono Record reports that gambling lobbyist Stephen R. Wojdak was one of several who had a hand in getting 17 Pennsylvania House members to switch their votes and grant a handful of companies an unprecedented monopoly on distributing slot machines.

As I wrote on Friday, Wojdak has decided to sell his children's interest in a slots distributorship after he was granted a special exemption to continue his campaign contributions despite a state ban against such donations.

The Scranton Times-Tribune reports that Anne LaCour Neeb, executive director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, owes Louisiana more than $2,700 after being paid for dozens of hours she apparently didn't work when she held a similar post there until September.

Folks at Penn National Race Course, north of Hershey, are not waiting for their license from the board.

Lancaster Online reports that construction of a $310 million five-story, 2,000-machine casino will begin this week with an eye toward opening in the first months of 2008, Peter Carlino, Penn National Gaming's chairman and chief executive officer, told Wall Street analysts Friday.

Meanwhile, the Centre Daily Times reports that the state's new property-tax law - which hinges on the state receiving $1 billion in slots recenue - has school district leaders scratching their heads on how it will impact every property owner and renter in the state.

And any break - including the average $200 one called for in the tax relief bill - can't come soon enough for the folks in Delaware County, in which each of the school districts passed tax hikes for next year, the Delco Times reports.

Finally, to come full circle, the Bucks County Courier Times reports that the movement to reform the freespending Pennsylvania Legislature - $500 million a year on 253 lawmakers - is gaining strength.

One minor problem, however. That means legislators, who are already outnumbered 4-1 by registered lobbyists, will be increasing that ratio.


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