|Evan M. Lopez|
The Inquirer's tireless Jennifer Lin reports today that the key players for the theoretical Foxwoods' casino Ronald Rubin and Lewis Katz have only recently submitted to the kind of rigorous investigation required (in theory, at least this reporter raiseth the ol' eyebrow) of prospective casino owners to be licensed by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Three and a half years after authorizing the Foxwoods Casino project on the South Philadelphia waterfront, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is only beginning the process of licensing one key player in the proposed gaming hall and determining the need to license a second.
[. . .]
The action comes even as lawyers for the gaming board build a case to revoke the $50 million license on the overall project. The Foxwoods group currently has no construction plan, no financing, and - with Las Vegas gambling tycoon Steve Wynn's sudden pullout in April - no operator.
How exactly did the Foxwoods investors manage to go so long without having to submit to investigation? How, exactly, did the Gaming Board fail to notify them just now that they'd be performing such an investigation? Are these investors, as Rep. Curt Schroder recently asked PGCB Chairman Gregory Fajt, using family foundations as "straw men" to hide their direct involvement in the project?
Oh, and one more question: How much sleazier does this project have to get before Foxwoods' investors get the boot?
Breaking: Gaming Board's Director of Compulsive and Problem Gambling apparently now working for casino
When the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board hired gaming lawyer (and Rutgers professor of casino law) Nanette Horner, they sent out a press release about it.
When Horner was chosen to play a "key role" in the "Responsible Gaming Committee" of an international gaming law body, the PGCB sent out a press release.
But when Horner left the agency, and her job overseeing the state's problem gambling programs, apparently to work for casino company Empire Resorts, last week well, you won't find any press release on their site about that.
Indeed, the PGCB website has deleted the page that once contained Horner's biography. Luckily, it's still available on Google Cache, and testifies to Horner's long career associations with the gambling industry. Her background gambling law does not appear to include experience as a therapist, counselor, or specialist in problem gambling.
While state regulations do prohibit at least some PGCB board members from working for "licensed entities," PGCB spokesman Richard McGarvey, who confirmed Horner's departure, pointed out that he believes she will be working for Empire Resorts, a New York company (not licensed, in other words, by the PGCB) which owns and operates Monticello Casino & Raceway in Monticello, New York.
We'll take a closer look at Horner's legacy and the current state of resources and initiatives to stop problem and compulsive gambling soon.
In the meantime, it's worth asking: Is this an example of the closeness between the Gaming Board, which is supposed to regulate the gambling industry, and the industry itself? And, if so, can someone so close to the gambling industry be trusted to help prevent and stop problem gambling when prominent studies indicate problem gambling as the main source of casinos' profits in the first place?
Dept of non-surprises: PA House Democrats to push again for slot machines in bars ... and lottery providers!
|Photo | Isaiah Thompson|
|It's "entertainment," babe: coming to a bar near you. (He sure looks happy).|
You know what natural gas and gamblers have in common?
Our elected officials will as dig deep, and at whatever cost to society, to exploit both as long as they can subsidize a tax here, or line a local slush fund there.
The difference? You can't can't make oil from scratch. Gamblers, on the other hand, can be created.
About a week ago (in a move that's received virtually no press, anywhere), Pennsylvania House Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fayette) announced that he will be introducing legislation to legalize "video poker" games in Pennsylvania, resurrecting a push last year to let every no, I need capital letters for this EVERY BAR IN THE STATE to host up to five "video poker" machines (slot machines, that is).
He is also calling and this hasn't been reported anywhere for slot machines to be allowed at places where lottery tickets are sold. Pro-gambling officials will deny that video poker machines are substantively different from slot machines. They are misinformed, as well as misleading the public, and I challenge any supporter of this legislation to prove otherwise.
The Fayette County lawmaker said clubs would be able to operate up to seven machines, licensed liquor establishment such as taverns and restaurants could operate up to five, and lottery sales agents could operate up to three machines. Machines operated by lottery sales agents would have to be located outside the general public's view and not accessible to people under age 21.
Mahoney said under his measure, the state could impose a maximum $1,000-per-year licensing fee per video poker machine. From that amount, $100 would go to the host municipality, $100 to the host school district and $50 to a nonprofit or community organization of the licensee's selection. Groups eligible for the $50-per-year funding would include fire and police departments, libraries and other nonprofit organizations.
The remainder of the licensing fee would be placed in the state's General Fund.
Think about it: slot machines in every bar in the state. That's as many as 60,000 or more new slot machines in Pennsylvania. The impact not just on gamblers, but on gamblers-to-be, on the down-and-out, and even on people who don't and will never gamble is hard to imagine. These slots won't even be at casinos. They'll be in our bars, right in our neighborhoods.
This isn't just some new law. It's a fundamental transformation of the nature of this state. It's Vegas, baby.
Mahoney, of course, is simply acting as the conduit of a plan long in the works. The casinos having won most of the favors they wanted, the state's powerful bar and tavern lobby (the PA Tavern Association) feels like it's their turn.
But this proposal to allow slots with lottery ticket sales? That's new.
Note the requirement that "Machines operated by lottery sales agents would have to be located outside the general public's view."
That's presumably supposed to be for the protection of the "general public" yet it also "protects" the gambler, doesn't it: from having to stop gambling, from being seen, from being interrupted by external stimuli (slot machines are designed to draw the player into a state of mind in which they will not stop playing until they're broke).
And it protects the gambling industry from being seen for what it is: predatory.
Philly.com reports today that police found a 15-month-old child who had been strapped inside a locked car for more than an hour outside Bensalem's Parx Casino, charging his father, Donald Waige, with child endangerment.
Waige said several times in this article that he had simply lost track of time:
Donald Waige, 59, told police that he had intended to stop into the casino for only 10 minutes to collect a $10 credit on his player's card when he left his little boy in the car Tuesday afternoon.
. . .
"Waige stated he did not realize he was in the casino for over an hour," a police statement said.
This, of course, follows on the heels of revelations that a former Jenkintown tax collector has been charged with gambling away more than $200,000 in taxpayer money also at Parx Casino.
Why is this not surprising? Because slot machines and the big boxes that house them are designed to do exactly what they did to Donald Waige: to suck players into a state of mind where the meaning of time gives way to the repetitive mechanical high of gambling on the slot machine, the most efficient money-sucking machine ever invented.
I'm reminded of research by MIT Professor Natasha Schull, who has studied extensively the way humans interact with slot machines (she has a new documentary about Las Vegas out; I haven't seen it, but it looks interesting).
I cited some of her findings in my 2009 cover story about the subtle ways slot machines have been designed to seduce gamblers:
Much of Schüll's work concentrates on the shocking efficiency with which slot machines not only relieve players of their money, but are able to induce them into a state she calls "the zone."
In the zone, the goal is not to win money, but simply to keep playing, as intensely as possible. Players describe the state as a kind of trance, in which the world melts away and they are alone with the machine.
In one academic paper, Schüll quotes a gambler named "Isabella" describing the experience: "I was gone," Isabella says. "My body was there, outside the machine, but at the same time I was inside the machine, inside the game."
Kind of makes you wonder what we'll be hearing about when Sugarhouse opens, doesn't it?
It's a question you'd think the city would have studied closely: the Nutter administration pledged two years ago to conduct an independent economic impact study but, two years later, has not (or has not made its results public).
So, just got this email from Mayor Nutter's Press office saying there is to be a press conference tonight on "the recent developments with Foxwoods casino."
A quick search revealed an article, posted about 40 minutes ago by the Inquirer's intrepid Jennifer Lynn, that reports that casino mogul Steve Wynn is pulling out of Foxwoods:
"We are fascinated by the legalization of full gaming in Pennsylvania and stimulated by the opportunity that it presents for Wynn Resorts, but this particular project did not, in the end, present an opportunity that was appropriate for our company," commented Stephen A. Wynn, chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts.
More to come, surely.
Wynn vs Lin: Casino mogul Steve Wynn blows up at Inquirer, saying "I don't like the tone of your voice!"
Yes, it's a week late but is it ever too late to watch videos of ultra-rich casino moguls blow up at reporters?
Exactly. So check out this video, taken by the mysterious and very diligent dude behind "Roxbury News," of Inquirer reporter Jennifer Lin trying to ask Steve Wynn about his proposed casino at last weeks Gaming Board hearing.
In the clip, Lin (hands-down one of the hardest-working reporters in town) asks Wynn a few basic questions about his proposed casino, like how he plans to get a building permit and whether he's heard of the recently-issued "civic vision" for the waterfront.
What's clear from the interview is that Wynn's own understanding of Foxwoods' troubled history on that site is . . . let's say, limited.
Lin wound up explaining to Wynn that Foxwoods had faced opposition to its waterfront site, and that because of delays in getting a building permit, the casino tried to relocate to Market East, near Chinatown.
"I wasn't part of that deal, I'm only part of this one," Wynn replied.
A few more highlights:
Jennifer Lin: Are you familiar with the two-year long process to come up with a civic vision for the waterfront, that the mayor paid for and endorsed, and that included
Steve Wynn: No, No, I answered you, no.
. . .
Wynn: Are you lecturing me or interviewing me?
Lin: I'm interviewing you and I'm asking you a question.
Wynn: Then please change the tone of your voice ma'am. I'm trying to be polite and I don't like the tone of your voice.
Lin: The finding of the civic vision was to have a more open waterfront and not build big box structures like casinos, home depots etc. Are you familiar with that, you said no. Are you curious what that vision was that was articulated?
Wynn: Well, it's clear that whatever that articulation was at some point in the past, that civic vision changed.
Old Foxwoods' new man, Steve Wynn, *thrilled* at proximity of Jews, Italians, and Vietnamese to his casino
Philadelphia, meet Steve Wynn, the new prospective financier of the former, flailing Foxwoods casino.
He's charming; he's funny; he's unnaturally tan; and he's just absolutely, totally thrilled at how close his new casino venture is to "every conceivable stripe of ethnic group that likes to shoot craps and gamble," notably: Jews, Italians, and Vietnamese.
So he remarked in a conference call yesterday, in which he assured stockholders and financial experts that his casino will make money. Wynn seemed to place special emphasis on the proximity (four blocks!) of his casino to a Vietnamese neighborhood.
That might not sit so well with activists for Philadelphia's Asian-American communities, who have highlighted problem and pathological gambling as a particularly serious problem, and who accuse the gambling industry of engaging in the predatory luring of gamblers, especially gamblers of Asian descent.
But hey as a Jew myself, I say it's nice to be in the spotlight or is cross-hairs a better word?
"On the other side of the bridge is Cherry Hill, New Jersey, all full of good ol' ... my old friends Italians and Jews and every conceivable stripe of ethnic group that love to shoot crap and gamble. And they're ten minutes away in their cars or in a bus from my casino on the Delaware river. I love the proximity to these people. I love the proximity to the Vietnamese neighborhood. And I'm gonna put in a beautiful Vietnamese restaurant for them. I'm going to build a very pretty place ... that is perfectly responsive to that market."
Well, folks, it's game on: the House is debating the table games bill as we speak (my understanding was that it can't be voted on until about 5:00 tonight; will report back on that).
I'll be covering the discussion (or whatever's left of it) and vote today via Twitter and on the Clog â simultaneously in this case!
My Twitter coverage (PhillyfrScratch) will be streamed below.
Tonight, the state House of Representatives is set to vote on the table games bill â a bill that contains more shady clauses than a Santa convention.
Does it matter? Do I spit into the wind?
Maybe so: but at least I'm spittin'.
This bill is about much more than whether or not you can play blackjack at a casino.
- It expands the powers of casinos to extend credit
- It expands their powers to share information about pools of potentially lucrative gamblers.
- It keeps enforcement and scrutiny of casino operators under the Gaming Board, despite almost uniform agreement among law enforcement officials that it shouldn't be.
- It grants special favors to private interests â including, CP found, favoring a company represented by a top Harrisburg lobbyist to get the last unawarded casino license.
- It extends the opening time for Foxwoods.
- It offers casinos laughably low tax rates and licensing fees â even though its sole purpose, ostensibly, is to raise money for the state.
- It appears to create a new category of casino supppliers, subject to less scrutiny.
The list goes on.
Meanwhile, Governor Rendell â the same who refused to tax the massive gas drilling operations underway in Pennsylvania â maintains his hostage tactic over the small pot of money tied to table games, threatening to lay off 1,000 workers if the bill isn't passed by Friday.
His office argues that, because the projected â key word, there â revenues from table games were included in the budget to the tune of $250 million, the state legislature simply must pass this bill.
Perhaps Rendell â and, indeed, the state legislature â ought not to have included money in the budget that would come from an activity not yet legal! Rendell signed off on a budget that expected money from table games without having seen the actual law that would provide for table game in the first place.
When, lo and behold, the law turned out to be riddled with earmarks, casino giveaways, and greedy in-fighting among the legislature, and therefore got held up â Rendell is all the more to blame for allowing such provisions in his budget in the first place.
Yet it seems to me that the media has played easily into Rendell's hands, covering all sorts of issues â even a natural history exhibit â in a context of something terrible happening "if the House doesn't pass table games," â as if passing table games was some sort of abstract bureaucratic hurdle that simply must be overcome; as if Rendell's bullying and threatening layoffs is somehow more reasonable than the delay of a thoroughly corrupted law.
Example: "Rendell: Might have to close Pa. museum, parks" â Inquirer
Example: "Rendell: Without table gaming, the state budget is ruined." â Business Insider
Example: "Rendell: Layoffs to come if no table games by Jan 8" â Inquirer
Example: "At last, a table games deal" â Allentown morning Call
I've made my personal opinion clear before and, in the interest of disclosure â an, frankly, as an appeal to readers who trust my reporting â I state it again. This bill is a disgrace. It expands the power of a predatory industry, and it reeks of pay-for-play politics.
If you'd like to contact your representatives to urge them to vote either way, you can look them up here by zipcode.
Coming up: table games' shady provisions explored.
This is the first installment in a series.
The City Paper has found that a clause in some versions of SB711 - the bill that would legalize table games in Pennsylvania casinos â would give a competitive advantage to one particular applicant â Wyo Gaming, L.C. â for the only un-awarded casino license in Pa.
That competitor, moreover, is represented by Stephen Wojdak, a major Harrisburg lobbyist, who represents several casinos, and whose political action committees have bundled hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Harrisburg politicians.
Finally, the fact that this language â giving Wyo Gaming, L.C. an advantage â was stripped from the bill by the state Senate appears to be a significant reason that table games legislation has been held up by House Democrats.
That's the executive summary. Now let's get down to it:
|Big shot: Wojdak talking to former Senator Fumo. The lobbyist represents several casinos and has poured money into Harrisburg. The tiny clause in SB711 would favor his client, Wyo Gaming, L.C.|
The table games bill, as you may have read, is currently stalled in Harrisburg.
House Democrats â the same who stuffed the bill with earmarks and concessions to the casinos (like letting them extend credit to slots players), rammed it through the House and voted to cut off debate â those same Democrats are suddenly refusing to approve seemingly small changes made by the Senate.
A pretty good question to ask is: why? What are those changes, whom do they affect, and who cares about them so much that Democrats now won't approve the bill?
Some of those answers are being reported: Philadelphia delegates are upset over language that would channel Philly's local share of dollars from the city fund to a state agency that would award the money to local entities, for example.
But here's one you haven't heard about.
The bill that passed the House a week and a half ago contained, buried deep within, this clause
(ii) No Category 3 license which was authorized by this part after November 30, 2009, shall be located by the board within 30 linear miles of another licensed facility.
Pretty obscure stuff, right? Yet one of the few changes made after the House passed the bill was that the Senate removed this little phrase. And, according to sources, doing so caused the Democratic caucus to erupt.
Because, according to multiple sources and my own research, that tiny little phrase would have a big impact on a lot of money â albeit for just a few people.
Only one casino license, a so-called "Class 3" resort license, remains un-awarded. The application period is over, and there are only two bidders: Bushkill Group, Inc., associated with the Fernwood Hotel and Resort in East Stroudsburg in the Poconos; and Wyo Gaming, L.P., associated with the Crown Plaza Reading Hotel in Wyomissing, Pa.
There are two bidders â but only one is situated "within 30 linear miles of another licensed facility" â which, if the little clause above had passed would have disqualified it from getting a table games license.
The Poconos location is well within 30 linear miles of the Mt. Airy Casino. (see map below).
The Wyomissing, location, however, happens to be just over 30 linear miles from the three nearest casinos.
That's right: The obscure bit of legalese above would prevent the Poconos location from getting a license to host table games â giving the Wyomissing location an obvious advantage in securing the casino license from the Gaming Board.
Who actually put that little clause into the bill? We don't know â yet â but we do know a few things:
Wyomissing Gaming, L.C. is represented by one Stephen Wojdak, of S.R. Wojdak & Associates, one of the most powerful lobbyists in Pennsylvania.
Don't take my word for it: Just enter 'Wojdak' into the state campaign contributor database, and you'll soon be swimming in contributions made by Wojdak himself, his firm, and - more importantly - the several Political Action Committees he controls, which have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into politicians' campaign coffers.
Wojdak's involvement with any and all casino legislation is well-known: Besides Wyo Gaming, L.C., he represents The Rivers Casino, Sugarhouse, and Mount Airy.
(Oh, and he once took a little heat when it was discovered that his two young children were listed as principals in a casino-supply company. At the time, it was illegal for anyone with an interest in such a company to make political donations).
Sources in Harrisburg confirm that Wojdak was a frequent presence during discussions over the table games legislation.
They do not say how or by whose hand the clause that would favor Wojdak's client got into the bill - but one points out that the casino is located in Berks county, just across the river from Reading â an area represented by Rep. Dante Santoni, the same Santoni who masterminded the bill and led it through the House.
None of this is to say that Wojdak, or anyone else for that matter, has done anything wrong or broken any laws. Indeed, Wojdak is a registered lobbyist and we can expect him to lobby.
But if someone rigged the law to favor a particular casino venture we think it's worth pointing out.And it raises serious questions about the intent of this law, and who really wrote it.
Below are some crude google maps of the locations. A linear mileage distance calculator confirmed source reports that the 30-mile law would affect one, and not the other, of the competitors for the last casino license.
Map 1: Bushkill's intended casino is within 30 miles of the Mt. Airy Casino.
View Fernwood Hotel and Resort in a larger map
Map 2: Wyo Gaming, L.C.'s intended casino is just over thirty miles from the three nearest casinos.
View casinos in a larger map
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