Mount Air y comes up aces in gam­bling bill

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - LOCAL - BY CRAIG R. MCCOY AND ANGELA COULOUMBIS THE PHILADEL­PHIA IN­QUIRER

HARRISBURG — In a last­minute ma­neu­ver be­fore the state Se­nate last month passed a sweep­ing ex­pan­sion of casino gam­bling in Penn­syl­va­nia, law­mak­ers added a 28-word amend­ment, cloaked in legalese.

“A cat­e­gory 4 slot ma­chine li­cense may not be lo­cated in a sixth-class county which is con­tigu­ous to a county that hosts a cat­e­gory 2 li­censed fa­cil­ity,” said the phras­ing, tucked halfway into the 939page bill.

Penn­syl­va­nia has 12 casi­nos. But that sin­gle sen­tence could be worth mil­lions of dol­lars to one: Mount Airy Casino Re­sort.

The bill paved the way for so-called mini-casi­nos to open around the state, re­quir­ing only that they be at least 25 miles from one of the larger, es­tab­lished gam­bling halls. The amend­ment nearly triples that buf­fer zone for the Mon­roe County casino, bar­ring mini-casi­nos from con­tigu­ous Car­bon, Pike and Wayne coun­ties.

More im­por­tant, it guar­an­tees that the Mount Po­cono des­ti­na­tion re­mains the clos­est and most ac­ces­si­ble casino for the thou­sands of New York­ers who flock each week to the com­mon­wealth to gam­ble.

Who in­serted the amend­ment — which, with the rest of the bill, was passed by the Leg­is­la­ture and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf — and why they did it re­mains an open mys­tery in Harrisburg.

Mount Airy Casino Re­sort was founded by busi­ness­man Louis DeNaples, who nearly a decade ago was forced to sell his share in the es­tab­lish­ment to a daugh­ter af­ter he was dogged by claims of ties to or­ga­nized crime.

A pub­lic re­la­tions fir m re pre­sent­ing Mount Airy said casino ex­ec­u­tives had no com­ment on the leg­is­la­tion.

Steve Craw­ford, pres­i­dent of the lob­by­ing fir m rep­re­sent­ing Mount Airy, said many es­tab­lish­ments were wor­ried about the bill and had lob­bied for a larger buf­fer zone, not a carve-out. He said Se­nate lead­ers came up with the lan­guage that seems writ­ten ex­clu­sively to pro­tect Mount Airy’s busi­ness.

“As to who put pen­cil to pa­per, I can’t an­swer that ques­tion,” said Craw­ford, ad­ding: “But I’m glad they did.”

Se­nate Repub­li­can lead­ers didn’t re­spond to re­quest for com­ments. T heir spokes - woman, Jennifer Kocher, said late Fri­day that she could not de­ter mine who crafted the amend­ment.

Sen. Mario Scavello, R-40, whose Mon­roe County district in­cludes the Mount Airy casino, did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. He voted against the bill.

StateS en. John Blake, D -22, Arch bald, whose district in­cludes parts of Mon­roe County but not the town­ship where the casino is lo­cated, said he didn’t write the pro­vi­sion and doesn’t know who did.

“It was not me,” Blake said. He also rep­re­sents all of Lack­awanna County and parts of Luzerne County.

State Rep. Mau­reen Mad­den, who also rep­re­sents the district that in­cludes the casino, voted for the mea­sure when it reached the House.

“To pro­tect all of that Mount Airy has com­mit­ted to in Mon­roe County, we need to make sure it thrives,” the Democrats aid in an in­ter­view Fri­day, ad­ding: “I un­der­stand that there are al­ways win­ners and losers in ev­ery piece of leg­is­la­tion.”

But the mys­te­ri­ous amend­ment is star ting to gen­er­ate crit­i­cism.

“Some­thing smells here,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126, of Berks County, who voted against the leg­is­la­tion. “Why are we giv­ing spe­cial treat­ment to one casino?”

Rozzi said he ex­pects Penn Na­tional, which is head­quar­tered in his re­gion and which owns the Hollywood casino, and other casino op­er­a­tors to sue over the new law, which he be­lieves cre­ates an un­even play­ing field. The irony, he said, is that a law­suit could ul­ti­mately freeze the planned gam­ing ex­pan­sion, pre­vent­ing the state from cash­ing in on new rev­enue and pad­ding its trou­bled fi­nances.

Eric Schip­pers, a top ex­ec­u­tive with Penn Na­tional, said the fir m was re­search­ing its le­gal op­tions. Hollywood, lo­cated in a less densely pop­u­lated area near Harrisburg, says it is un­usu­ally vul­ner­a­ble be­cause it draws half its gam­blers from out­side the 25-mile ra­dius de­fined in the law.

“What’s up­set­ting to us is that Penn Na­tional is be­ing uniquely neg­a­tively im­pacted by this mas­sive ex­pan­sion of gam­ing,” he said. “At the same time, they give this gift to Mount Airy. It’s un­equal treat­ment. This is an 11thhour give­away.”

The gam­bling ex­pan­sion bill was among the GOP-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture’ s so­lu­tions this year for rais­ing new dol­lars for Penn­syl­va­nia with­out rais­ing taxes. The leg­is­la­tion set into mo­tion one of the big­gest ex­pan­sions of g am­bling in the state since the 2004 law that le­gal­ized casi­nos.

De­spite its com­plex­ity, it was cob­bled to­gether and ap­proved by both leg­isla­tive cham­bers in a breath­tak­ing 24 hours. It passed the Se­nate in a 31-19 vote, with no de­bate. Wolf, a Demo­crat, signed it four days later.

Among other changes, the bill will al­low 10 new mini­cas­i­nos to open around the state, with each be­ing able to op­er­ate from 300 to 750 slot ma­chines and 30 ta­ble games.

In what may have been a draft­ing er­ror by the Leg­is­la­ture, the same lan­guage that helps Mount Airy might also ex­tend a lesser amount of pro­tec­tion to one other op­er­a­tion, Rivers Casino in Pittsb u r g h . I t s h o m e c o u n t y, Al­legheny, touches a six­th­class county, Ar mstrong, a ru­ral area to the north­east, which would also be barred from host­ing a mini-casino. Rivers Casino de­clined com­ment. Mad­den said she had not heard of any talk that the mea­sure would as­sist any­one but Mount Airy.

Be­cause a num­ber of the state’s ex­ist­ing casi­nos are clus­tered around high-pop­u­la­tion ar­eas — such as Philadel­phia and its sub­urbs — the 25-mile buf­fer zone was, if not em­braced, at least con­sid­ered enough pro­tec­tion from hav­ing a mini-casino open nearby and eat away at their prof­its.

And some casi­nos are lo­cated close enough to each other to ben­e­fit by pig­gy­back­ing on a ri­val’ s buf­fer zone, in ef­fect ex­tend­ing their own pro­tec­tion beyond 25 miles. Some casi­nos around the Philadel­phia area, for in­stance, have an ef­fec­tive buf­fer zone of more than 90 miles. One, the Har­rah’s casino in Ch­ester, has an ef­fec­tive range of 127 miles.

Craw­ford, pres­i­dent of the Wo­j­dak Gov­ern­ment Re­la­tions lob­by­ing firm, said Mount Airy was among a long list of es­tab­lish­ments con­cerned about the new mini-casi­nos “can­ni­bal­iz­ing” busi­ness at the state’s ex­ist­ing gam­bling halls, which pay more than 50 per­cent in taxes on slot-ma­chine rev­enue.

“From the very be­gin­ning, all of us were con­cerned about the dra­matic ex­pan­sion of gam­ing and what it will mean to the brick-and- mor tar casi­nos,” he said, ad­ding there was noth­ing “new” or unique about Mount Airy’s po­si­tion.

Among the dozen casi­nos, Mount Airy is sev­enth from the top in terms of rev­enue, tak­ing in about $190 mil­lion last fis­cal year. It has a con­tro­ver­sial history.

DeNaples, 77, a po­lit­i­cally con­nected Scran­ton mil­lion­aire, re­lin­quished his own­er­ship of the Po­conos g am­bling hall in 2009, shift­ing his stake to his daugh­ter, Lisa DeNaples. T he move was part of a deal with prose­cu­tors in Dauphin County, who had charged him with per­jury, be­liev­ing he had lied to Penn­syl­va­nia’s Gam­ing Con­trol Board about his ties to or­ga­nized crime when ap­ply­ing for a casino li­cense.

Still, the casino came un­der scru­tiny again in 2011, when the state At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice re­leased a sting­ing grand jury re­port ques­tion­ing the process by which casino li­censes were awarded in Penn­syl­va­nia.

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