New owners of New Castle track-casino sound familiar
It's a family affair at New Castle site
July 19, 2011 4:00 AM
Ted Arneault, he'll get another chance to demonstrate good character, honor and integrity when the gaming board again scrutinizes his background.
By Tracie Mauriello and Tom Barnes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HARRISBURG -- Familiar names emerged from a list of new owners of a proposed New Castle racetrack and casino, including one whose activities have raised concerns among gaming investigators.
Documents show that the investors are Pittsburgh attorney Charles Knoll; local business people A. William Price, Christine Biros and Nicholas Geanopulos; and Edson "Ted" Arneault, former chief executive of West Virginia Based MTR, which operates Presque Isle Downs in Erie.
Together, they make up American Harness Tracks, which plans to build a harness track in Lawrence County.
American Harness Tracks was the successful bidder at a bankruptcy auction in December 2010 to succeed Centaur Inc., an Indiana-based company, as developer of the Valley View Downs & Casino project.
The Valley View project has been in limbo for years, in part because the winning track operator, Centaur, couldn't win the Gaming Control Board's approval for a casino license and ultimately filed for bankruptcy.
As part of its bankruptcy restructuring, Centaur sold assets to American Harness for $5.6 million. At the time, American Harness Tracks was headed by real estate developers John and Bob Biros and former bar owner Daryl W. Price.
But according to documents with the state Harness Racing Commission, American Harness has some new investors, some of whom are relatives of the original group. A. William Price is the father of Daryl W. Price. And Christine Biros is the sister of John Biros and the daughter of Bob Biros.
The five current owners and the former owners either did not return phone calls or declined to give a reason for the change of ownership. It also was not clear when that change of ownership occurred.
The new ownership came to light last week when the state Harness Racing Commission gave approval for American Harness Tracks LLC to take over the Valley View Downs & Casino project.
One reason for the change in ownership could be the criminal and liquor-code citations filed over the years against one of the original principals, Daryl Price.
In 2008, he was accused of operating illegal poker machines at Bridgeville's Rhythm House Cafe. The charges were eventually withdrawn and Mr. Price instead pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
Another bar Mr. Price helped run for several years -- Price's Tavern in North Strabane -- also was cited over the years for illegal gambling, serving minors and numerous other violations. Combined, Price's Tavern and Rhythm House received at least 21 citations since 1989.
Price's Tavern, now closed, was owned by A. William Price, Daryl Price's father and now a principal in American Harness Tracks.
Another of American Harness Tracks's new owners, Mr. Arneault, has a past that came to the attention of gaming investigators and grand jurors.
Mr. Arneault's name appeared in a May grand jury report that scrutinized the way the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board investigated applicants for casino licenses. According to the report, supervisors prevented investigators from showing board members "significant information that ... may have warranted a finding of unsuitability" for the Presque Isle application.
That information regarded Mr. Arneault's business dealings, personal affairs, "a questionable political contribution," and a chart provided by the Nevada Gaming Control Board depicting his connections to organized crime in Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Las Vegas.
The grand jury report quotes one gaming investigator as saying "Arneault is a crook, we know that, but the board licensed them and it's time to move on."
Mr. Arneault of New Smyrna Beach, Fla. did not respond to a request for comment. But his attorney, John Mizner of Erie, lambasted the grand jury report for one-sidedness. Mr. Mizner said the attorney general's office ignored his client's requests to give grand jurors his side of the story.
"Grand juries ought to be about seeking the truth and should not be about lawyers and investigators providing only their side of the story. It is incomprehensible that when somebody offers to appear and testify that lawyers would not take advantage of that," he said Monday. "The truth is obtained by getting information from as many sources that are available."
He said Mr. Arneault has proven that he has good character, honor and integrity.
He'll get another chance to demonstrate that when the gaming board again scrutinizes his background to determine LLC American Harness Tracks' suitability to operate a casino in New Castle.
"If we need to do that two, three, four times, we'll do it because what's in the grand jury report is not the truth," Mr. Mizner said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Arneault has a lawsuit pending against the gaming board over whether officials conspired to defame him in order to prevent him from holding a gaming license. Ultimately, Mr. Arneault received his license as a part owner of Presque Isle Downs and had it renewed last November for three more years.
That renewal doesn't guarantee he will receive a license for Valley View Downs.
"Someone who has ownership of two casinos has to go through the paperwork twice. We have to see what the role is of each individual, and it could be different from casino to casino," said gaming board spokesman Richard McGarvey.
The gaming board also will be looking into his partners' background.
Mr. Knoll, son of the late Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, emerged as the face of American Harness Tracks and refused last week to identify his partners, saying disclosure would violate the terms of a bankruptcy sale.
Harness commission spokeswoman Samantha Krepps later revealed the names of the investors in American Harness Tracks but refused to provide access to the application, saying it includes financial information that is exempt from disclosure under the state's right-to-know law.
Her list shows that American Harness changed hands since last August, when Daryl W. Price indicated in a letter to the commission that he was chief operating officer of the company, that John Biros was chief executive officer and that Bob Biros was chairman of the board.
Now Daryl Price is out, but his father owns 15 percent, according to state Harness Commission records. And the Biros men are out but Christine Biros now owns 30 percent. Mr. Arneault, meanwhile, owns 25 percent. Mr. Geanopulos and Mr. Knoll own 15 percent each.
Ms. Biros is an Allegheny County businesswoman who also led her family's earlier effort to open a thoroughbred racetrack near McKeesport.
Mr. Geanopulos of Mt. Lebanon is the long-time proprietor of Nicky's Grant Street Tavern and was a lobbyist for Presque Isle Downs.
In 1994, when lawmakers were considering legalizing riverboat gambling, Las Vegas-based Riviera Gaming hired him to lobby in Harrisburg and scout sites in Pittsburgh.