Ex-chief justice's Pa. casino group draws scrutiny

AP News
Posted: Nov 19, 2009 11:12 AM

A state lawmaker is questioning why a casino industry association in Pennsylvania that is headed by a former state Supreme Court chief justice is not registered as a lobbying group, despite its apparent attempts to influence debate on gambling legislation.

House Gaming Oversight Committee Chairman Dante Santoni Jr. wrote this week to former Justice Stephen A. Zappala to ask why no one from the Pennsylvania Casino Association is a registered lobbyist and to request specific information about the association, its members and activities.

Zappala told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he believes the association has acted appropriately. He said Santoni's letter will be responded to fully by the association.

"I feel very comfortable that we have not violated any laws," he said.

Santoni cited public statements, letters and radio advertisements issued by the association advocating a specific position on legislation, such as the legalization of table games at the state's slot-machine casinos.

"In light of these and other facts, I am puzzled by the statements by officers of the association that the association is not lobbying and does not need to comply with the requirements of Act 71, the state's lobbying disclosure law," Santoni wrote.

In an interview Wednesday, Santoni said that he and other legislators want more information and he may schedule a public hearing on the matter.

"I just basically think that if they're going to be lobbying ... then they have to play by the same rules that everyone else has to play by," Santoni said.

More than 1,000 people and organizations are registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State as lobbyists.

The existence of the association, which is based in Pittsburgh, was not widely known until earlier this fall when it began weighing in publicly on legislation before the state Legislature.

Zappala, 77, served on the Supreme Court for 20 years through 2002, the last as its chief justice. He retired when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. Wednesday, he said he is the association's paid chairman, although he is not listed as an employee or officer on the group's 2008 tax filing.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first wrote about Zappala's connection to the organization in an Oct. 25 story.

Mount Airy Casino Resort owner Lisa DeNaples is listed on the 2008 tax filing as a director of the organization, as is Philadelphia lawyer Richard A. Sprague, who is part-owner of SugarHouse Casino, which is under construction in Philadelphia. A lawyer in Sprague's firm is listed as the secretary-treasurer.

On the filing, the association said its purpose is to "improve the business conditions in the gaming industry generally and to create a better understanding of the gaming industry by the general public, elected officials, other decision makers and the media through education and advocacy."

However, the association's membership itself is a source of confusion, Santoni said.

It issued an Oct. 7 statement on behalf of four Pennsylvania casinos _ The Rivers, SugarHouse, Foxwoods Philadelphia and Mount Airy _ threatening a lawsuit if the state lets miniature "resort" casinos add more slot machines.

Then it issued a corrected release later that day removing Foxwoods' name. A week later, Mount Airy's CEO George Toth wrote to lawmakers to say he had no intention of suing, the Post-Gazette reported.