- by Andrew Conte, TRIBUNE-REVIEW, August 8, 2006
HARRISBURG - Rarely have two full boxes held so little.
Without fanfare Monday, the state Gaming Control Board released for the first time public files with applications by racetracks seeking casino licenses.
Cardboard boxes holding a bid from The Meadows race track in Washington County included forms generated by other public agencies -- such as the federal Securities and Exchange Commission -- and documents with all but names whited out.
Missing were untold pages from sections deemed "confidential." Sixty-seven of the 89 "mandatory" sections in the application by Washington Trotting Association, which had been the lead bidder for the casino, were withheld from public inspection.
Information about Millennium Gaming, the Las Vegas company that purchased the track last month, and its local subsidiary, PA Meadows, was not included. They have filed applications, but the sale closed too late for them to be part of the file, said Bill Paulos, a partner at Millennium.
Some sections that were provided said nothing substantive -- sometimes just "does not apply" -- or were incomplete. A strategy to prevent gambling addiction skipped one page and ended in mid-sentence.
Nick Hays, gaming board spokesman, said that might have been an oversight. Regulators withheld documents that are part of a background investigation or that contain proprietary business information, he said.
"I don't agree that (the file) is lean," Hays said.
Lawmakers envisioned an open process when they drafted the state's slots law, said Christopher Craig, legal counsel for the Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee, who helped write the legislation. Regulators are "still struggling" with how to act under the state's Right to Know Law, he said.
"The public's interest is served in having as much transparency as possible," said Ron Porter, co-chair of the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force, a volunteer body that has watched the gambling application process. "This has turned out to be far more convoluted than I expected."
Regulators need to be as open as possible to build up public confidence in the gambling industry, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause, a good-government lobbying group.
"It's going to raise suspicions when that kind of information is not being made public," Kauffman said. "This is an industry that doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to law enforcement. You'd think they would want to put as much information out there as they can for the public to feel comfortable this is being done on the up-and-up."
Ed Goppelt, a Philadelphia-based gambling opponent who runs the Web site hallwatch.org, said he's not surprised by the lack of information in the public files. He traveled to Harrisburg in June to look at applications for slots manufacturer's licenses.
"They had taken everything out of the applications except for public documents some other agency had generated," he said.
Washington Trotting Association said it had planned to open a temporary casino with 1,500 slot machines, a 321-seat buffet and 500-seat entertainment space. Paulos said a facility like that could open by February.
To curb problem gambling, the company proposed not allowing check-cashing at the casino and said it would have made a "diligent effort" to not allow gambling by visibly intoxicated patrons. It also vowed not to market to young people by using cartoon figures or college athletes.
Paulos said trying to prevent gambling addiction remains a priority.
"The last thing we want is someone to get in trouble gambling," Paulos said. "We're not there to take someone's paycheck."
The gambling board plans to hold a round of hearings on the slots applications, starting with The Meadows proposal at 9 a.m. Sept. 11. The agency could award the track a license by late next month.
A full hearing schedule is available online at http://www.pgcb.state.pa.us.