3 slots license awards questioned

Republican House members criticize gaming board on procedures it used

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HARRISBURG -- Two Republican House members criticized the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board yesterday for the procedures it used in issuing three of its lucrative slots licenses, including the one to Don Barden, who wants to build a Majestic Star casino on Pittsburgh's North Shore.

Reps. Douglas Reichley of Lehigh and Mike Vereb of Montgomery questioned the board's judgment in issuing a slot machine license in December to Mr. Barden, who, they claimed, has personally racked up millions in gambling losses.

"We question the suitability of the application of a person who has accumulated $11 million in gambling losses," the two Republicans told reporters at a news conference. They wondered if such a lack of financial acumen would compromise Mr. Barden's ability to successfully operate the Pittsburgh casino.

Mr. Reichley said he got his information about Mr. Barden's losses from a recent newspaper story.

"Did the board have this information about his gambling debts, and how did it affect their ability to give him the license?" he asked.

Mary D. Colins, gaming board chairwoman, sent a letter to House Republicans about the procedures used for the Pittsburgh license.

"Our decision, which was based upon extensive testimony by the applicants, witnesses for and against the applicants, the public at large as well as staff members of the board, has withstood two appeals by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by the unsuccessful applicants," she said.

Then she added, "I would note that every [slots license] applicant was found financially suitable. However, financial suitability was not the only factor which the gaming act required the board to consider."

Another goal of expanded gaming is racial and economic diversity, and Mr. Barden was the only slots license recipient who is African-American.

Mr. Reichley and Mr. Vereb held a hearing last month questioning the ability of the gaming board's Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement to do proper background checks into gambling applicants. FBI, state attorney general officials and state police said they couldn't share sensitive background information on applicants with the bureau because it wasn't an accredited police agency.

The two Republicans wanted gaming board officials to come to a Republican policy committee hearing yesterday and answer questions about Mr. Barden and two other successful slots applicants -- Louis DeNaples, who owns a just-opened casino in the Poconos, and SugarHouse, which is one of two casinos planned for the Delaware riverfront in Philadelphia. Mr. DeNaples is reportedly the target of a grand jury investigation in Dauphin County.

Last month, gaming board officials attended two Republican-led hearings and apparently decided that was enough.

Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, said Mr. Reichley's intentions appeared politically motivated, and noted that Mr. Reichley has never been a supporter of expanded gaming.

"In view of their long-standing opposition to gaming, it comes as no surprise that House Republicans find fault with the gaming board's procedures," he said.

Mr. Reichley said, "This isn't a witchhunt. We are trying to improve the board's backgrounding process."

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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