Analysis: Charges of political favoritism come with territory on slots

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Republican Lynn Swann, who is running for governor, favors Isle of Capri's bid for the Pittsburgh casino license for one simple reason: The company is promising to spend $290 million in private cash to build a new arena.

What a deal, the ex-Steeler star said yesterday -- the city gets a brand-new facility for ice hockey, circuses and other events, at no upfront cost to Pittsburgh or Allegheny County taxpayers.

But the guy Mr. Swann wants to beat, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, says things aren't that simple. Mr. Rendell noted that Isle of Capri has two competitors for the stand-alone slots license that will be awarded in Pittsburgh.

What happens if one of them -- Forest City/Harrah's or Detroit businessman Don Barden -- wins the battle before the state Gaming Control Board? How does a new arena get financed and built then?

Mr. Rendell, who is seeking a second term in November and urgently needs to shore up his political support in southwestern Pennsylvania, says there has to be an alternative financing plan for a new arena in case Isle of Capri doesn't get the license.

Some critics have taken his stance to mean he knows that Forest City boss Albert Ratner of Cleveland, who has contributed to Mr. Rendell's campaigns in the past, will get the slots license.

That's what former Mayor Tom Murphy meant last year when he said he'd heard "the fix was in'' regarding the Pittsburgh casino license. Rumors continue to circulate that Forest City will be the winner. No reason's been given, but Mr. Ratner's ties to Mr. Rendell certainly don't hurt.

Those rumors infuriate the governor and Tad Decker, the gaming board chairman, who was appointed by Mr. Rendell.

They have repeatedly denied that any decisions have been made on the Pittsburgh license or any of the other 13 the board will award over the next 12 months.

Mr. Rendell says it's only prudent for Pittsburgh to have a backup financing plan for an arena if Isle of Capri and their partners, the Penguins, don't get the slots license.

Mr. Decker, a Philadelphia lawyer, has vowed that the applications of all 22 bidders who are seeking casino licenses in the state will be carefully and fairly evaluated by the seven-member board.

Three of those members, including Mr. Decker, were named by Mr. Rendell, while four top General Assembly leaders each named one member. Still, Mr. Rendell repeatedly says he won't influence who gets the coveted licenses.

Some Democrats were amazed yesterday that Mr. Swann came out in favor of Isle of Capri's plan.

If Mr. Swann wins in November, he'll get to replace the three board members that Mr. Rendell appointed. Democrats ask how the new members could make a reasoned and fair decision when they know their boss -- Mr. Swann -- favors Isle of Capri.

Senate Democratic leader Robert Mellow claims the GOP candidate "has destroyed his own credibility."

Since slots were legalized in 2004, Mr. Mellow said, "We have made every effort to keep the application process open and protect it from political opportunism. Then along comes Lynn Swann, willing to trash everything we worked so hard for.''

That's baloney, Mr. Swann said. "The gambling commission needs to make a decision ... and this [Isle of Capri offer] is the best possible plan."


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


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