House Republican leader critical of casinos speaks at pro-gambling conference

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HARRISBURG -- Inviting House Republican leader Sam Smith to speak at a pro-gambling conference is sort of like inviting the mayor of Baltimore to speak at a Steelers pep rally.

They don't exactly go together. Mr. Smith, R-Punxsutawney, voted against the original casino-authorization legislation in July 2004 and has been a sharp critic of how the state Gaming Control Board has awarded licenses to 11 casinos so far.

But he was invited anyway to speak last night at fifth annual Pennsylvania Gaming Congress, held here by New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group, which tracks trends in the nation's casino industry.

Mr. Smith didn't pull any punches in talking about legalized gambling in Pennsylvania.

"Gaming in Pennsylvania has its share of issues, and we need to fix the law,'' he told people from the gaming industry who gathered here for the two-day conference. "We need to clarify the law to restore public trust. That state needs a sound foundation, one we can count on.''

He's assailed the gaming board for several of its licenses, including a casino open in the Poconos, the casino soon to open in Pittsburgh and the two casinos that have been stalled for over two years in Philadelphia.

He was unhappy about giving a slots license to Louis Denaples of Scranton, owner of the Mount Airy casino in the Poconos, who's been charged with perjury for allegedly lying to state gaming regulators about his possible ties to crime figures in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Mr. Smith criticized the board for giving a license in December 2006 to former Pittsburgh casino owner Don Barden, who ran into financial problems and had to bring in new investors to keep the project on track.

Mr. Smith also criticized the board for awarding licenses for two slots parlors along the Delaware River in Philadelphia. For more than two years, the two casinos have been stalled by strong citizen opposition, meaning that no property tax-reduction money is being generated.

"The Gaming Control Board needs to be concerned about regulating the industry responsibly rather than looking for leaks about leaks!" he said, referring to steps the board has taken to find out how some confidential information about license applicants has ended up in the news media.

He proposed several changes:

• Eliminate the four legislative appointments to the gaming board. All seven members would be named by the governor with confirmation by the Senate.

• Totally ban felons from operating or working at casinos; now, if a person has a conviction more than 15 years in the past, he or she can still get a casino license.

• End "the revolving door'' for board lawyers and top staff by not allowing casinos to hire them once they leave the board. In the past two years, at least three board lawyers, one board member and one board chief investigator have left the board and gone to work for law firms that represent Pennsylvania casinos.

• Allow "actual law enforcement agencies'' to conduct background investigations of prospective gaming employees. Now the board's Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement does the investigations, with some work by the state police. House Republicans want the job totally transferred to state police or the attorney general.


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