Analysis: Filling state gambling board a political challenge

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HARRISBURG -- For most of a decade, state Democrats have fought off and on for some form of expanded gambling. But now that they've won it, they can't seem to keep from tripping over their own feet.

The first order of business, following the July passage of a bill that will allow more than 60,000 slot machines at 14 venues across Pennsylvania, is the appointment of a seven-person gambling control board to oversee the new industry.

Turns out that's easier said than done. One of the Democratic appointments, former Philadelphia police officer Frank Friel, is being opposed by Senate Republicans worried about his two-year-old testimony on behalf of Connecticut boxing promoter Arthur Pelullo, who was alleged to have mob ties.

Friel, who was tapped by Gov. Ed Rendell to be the gaming board's chairman, was also named in a 1974 Pennsylvania Crime Commission report, which said he was seen receiving money from a club owner.

Next problem: this week's selection of retiring state Rep. Jeffrey Coy, appointed by the House Democrats. Coy, by most accounts, is inoffensive and has a great sense a humor. But those character traits do little to satisfy the state constitution, which reads: "No Senator or Representative shall, during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil office under this Commonwealth to which a salary [is] attached."

At issue is whether the clause "during the time for which he was elected" would be nullified if Coy resigns from the House next week, and is appointed to the board afterward. Senate Republicans say that's not the case -- "the time for which he was elected" means the entire two-year legislative term, which runs through November.

"I think it's the plain language of the constitution," without much room for interpretation, said Stephen C. MacNett, lead counsel to Senate Republicans. "I can generally see the 70-30 on any question. But on this one, I can't find the 30."

Case law dating to 1953 says a resignation from the state House or Senate doesn't satisfy Article II, Section 6 of the constitution.

Violating the constitution "is a poor way to start a new operation," MacNett said.

The Democrats' appointment troubles illustrate that the slots victory, while satisfying personally for Rendell, doesn't guarantee smooth sailing from here on out for the governor and his allies on the gambling issue.

Lawmakers who opposed slots prior to the July gambling legislation still intend to cause headaches in the aftermath.

"We do suspect that the politics of antigaming are at work here," said Kate Philips, one of the governor's spokeswomen.

For their part, Democrats haven't helped their own cause, appointing one candidate with a background that is at least superficially suspect, and another who might not even be legally able to assume his post.

In Friel's case, Senate Republicans, led by Sens. Jeffrey Piccola, of Dauphin County, and Gibson Armstrong, of Lancaster, can object to the appointment on the basis of Friel's character, but they have no other legal ground to stand on. They can hope to raise enough of a stink that Rendell will relent on his pick before next week -- the week by which the gaming board is supposed to be in place, according to the slots law -- or hope that Friel removes his name from consideration on his own, but they can't force the governor's hand.

Coy is another story. Senate Republicans, or another group with legal standing, could file a suit to prevent Coy's installation on the board, and they might win. In that case, House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, who selected Coy, would either have to relent on the Coy pick, or find a way around the state constitution.

One way to do that would be to name a placeholder candidate, who would serve from September through December, while Coy's legislative term officially expires. The placeholder could then retire, allowing Coy, D- Chambersburg, to be named as the immediate replacement.

MacNett said "the safest thing for Jeff Coy is to use a placeholder." He also suggested that the House Democrats seek an opinion from thea attorney general's office before Coy officially resigns, or before a lawsuit appears. Tom Andrews, spokesman for DeWeese, declined to say what DeWeese would do if Senate Republicans pressed the Coy appointment in court.

The slots law says the appointments, whoever they are, must serve for a set term and "may not be removed except for good cause." The law does not specify what happens if a board members resigns on his own, but it does include a provision allowing for an appointment to fill an unexpired term.

In Coy's case, that term would run through January 2007.

DeWeese, through Andrews, said it wouldn't come to that.

"Rep. DeWeese is fully confident in his appointment of Jeff Coy and in his ability to serve on the state gaming board following his resignation from the House," Andrews said yesterday.

Don't mistake the Senate Republican protests for mere GOP nitpicking. These aren't ordinary government appointments. These gaming board members will be among the most powerful people in the state, will earn more money annually than the governor, and will have a great amount of say as to which applicants will eventually receive the slots coveted licenses.

"The board has the ability to change the face of Pennsylvania," said Steve Miskin, aide to House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.

"It's incumbent on the appointing authorities to put the best people on [the board], people totally above reproach. You've got 12 million Pennsylvanians to pick from," he said.

Each legislative caucus gets to name one gaming board member, and Rendell gets three selections, for a total of seven members.

The picks, so far, have been Friel; Coy; House Republican selection Joseph W. Marshall III, chairman and chief executive of the Temple University Health System and a former chairman of the state Ethics Commission; William P. Conaboy, chosen by Senate Democratic leader Robert J. Mellow; and former NFL referee and current Carnegie Mellon University official Sanford Rivers, a Rendell choice.

If Coy's and Friel's nominations are upheld, two openings remain on the gaming board -- one more for Rendell, and one for Senate Republicans.

The picks are not subject to a Senate confirmation process.


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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