Pa. slot parlor hopefuls pour cash into PACs, candidate funds
Monday, October 17, 2005
By Marc Levy, The Associated Press
HARRISBURG -- Entrepreneurs vying for licenses to run gambling halls in Pennsylvania have contributed at least $330,000 to political candidates and causes since the state legalized slot machines 14 months ago, campaign finance records show.
The recipients included the five men -- Gov. Ed Rendell and the four top Republican and Democrat leaders in the state Legislature -- who appointed the members of the state board that will award the slots licenses.
About $173,000 was contributed to the governor and the four legislative leaders and PACs that those lawmakers control.
The July 2004 law that created a slot-machine industry in Pennsylvania barred executives of horse-racing and gambling companies from making any further political contributions. It also went a step further, banning contributions from anyone who applies for a slots license.
But the law left open the door for nongambling interests -- developers, businessmen and others hoping to get into the industry -- to donate before they had applied for the right to open slots parlors.
Lawmakers discussed the issue while they were writing the slots legislation but questioned how they could enforce a pre-application ban on contributions and whether it was constitutional.
"I don't know how to tell who would be interested and who is not interested," said Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson, R-Bucks. "Only to the extent that we can identify the field can we curb it."
Good-government groups say it is a loophole in the state's efforts to keep politics and influence-peddling out of the decision-making process that will give rise to a new and lucrative industry in Pennsylvania.
"People don't give away money for nothing; it just doesn't happen," said Tim Potts, a former legislative aide who helped found the good-government group called Democracy Rising. "They expect something in return, and the people who accept that money know the contributors expect something in return."
Starting Nov. 1, the Gaming Control Board will begin accepting applications for licenses for seven slots parlors that do not have to be located at racetracks, and competition is fierce among politically connected businessmen who are accustomed to contributing to campaigns.
Aides to Rendell and the legislative leaders -- Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer, Senate Democratic leader Robert J. Mellow, House Speaker John M. Perzel and House Democratic leader H. William DeWeese -- said they would not pressure board appointees to steer licenses to big donors.
The $330,000 in contributions came from 12 individuals, families or groups and went to a variety of elected officials and political action committees, according to campaign finance reports on file in the state Elections Bureau. Seven contributors gave $30,000 or more.
The amount of contributions may be even higher than current records show. Donors may also have contributed to elected officials or political-action committees that have not been reported yet.
All but one of the donors have said publicly they will apply for a slots license, and the other donor has not disputed published reports that he will apply.
One contributor, Joseph Mattioli, said he has given political donations for years to ensure that state lawmakers will listen to him when they consider legislation that could affect the auto racetrack he owns in northeast Pennsylvania.
Mr. Mattioli, the chief executive of Pocono Raceway, gave at least $33,150, but said the money was not intended to influence the board. Rather, he said he expects the board will pick the applicants who can bring in the most slots revenue -- one-third of which is earmarked for property-tax cuts for the state's 3 million homeowners.
"From what I gather, it's going to be the people the state feels can best develop a cadre of gamblers to come to a casino," he said.
Former Conrail chief executive David LeVan gave $36,000 last fall, nearly all of it to Rendell, but he said he knew nothing about slots until months later, when a group approached him about building a gambling hall near Gettysburg.
Rendell's press secretary, Kate Philips, said the governor accepted $37,000 in campaign contributions from Mr. Levan and another donor because they gave the money before they had expressed any interest in operating slots parlors. However, he returned $15,000 to Joe Hardy, who owns the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County, because of his known interest in a slots license, she said.
Mr. Rendell "would not want any judgment placed on himself or groups that are pursuing a license," Philips said. "He doesn't believe there's a link; it's really a matter of appearances."
Vice Chairman of Voter Education