Pa. sends mixed signals on gambling
" ... the mere appearance of impropriety reflects negatively upon the industry and the Commonwealth and is grounds for refusal to award a harness license."
So said the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission last July in a brief asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision that set aside the commission's rejection of a harness license application submitted by area businessman Carmen Shick, his brother, Ken, and their sister, Kendra Tabak.
The brief was filed by Barbara Adams, general counsel for Gov. Ed Rendell.
What is the mere appearance of impropriety that the commission contends justifies a rejection of a harness license application for the proposed Bedford Downs horse racing track in Mahoning Township in Lawrence County?
It has to do with the grandfather of Carmen, Ken and Kendra.
Carmen Ambrosio, a well-known Western Pennsylvania businessman, had ties to Mahoning Valley organized crime boss Lenine Strollo. Strollo, who is serving a 12-year federal prison sentence and has become a federal government witness against Mafia figures, revealed his connection to Ambrosio during testimony in government corruption and organized crime cases in Mahoning County.
The Pennsylvania Racing Commission has insisted that it is not accusing the grandchildren of having ties to organized crime, but has said the fruits of the grandfather's business enterprises are poisoned by his association with Strollo and other mobsters.
That attempt to visit the sins of the grandfather upon the grandchildren was strongly rejected by an appeals court. In a 6-1 vote, the appellate judges smacked the commission for suggesting that the ground upon which Bedford Downs would be built "will induce Bedford to violate racing laws."
The court ordered the commission to reconsider the application for the harness racing license.
Instead, the commission took the matter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where it is pending.
But last month's decision by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to grant a standalone slot-machine casino license to a convicted felon with alleged ties to organized crime stands the mere appearance of impropriety standard on its head.
If Bedford Downs is approved for a harness racing license, it would also be eligible for a slot-machine casino license.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board did not find Louis DeNaples, owner of Mount Airy Resort & amp; Casino, unacceptable when it reviewed his application for a slots license and delved into his background. This, despite the fact that DeNaples is a convicted felon.
According to a newspaper account, DeNaples was one of several contractors who were charged with submitting inflated invoices for work they did after the Agnes flood of 1972. He pleaded no contest to a conspiracy charge and received three years' probation.
According to the Times Leader, gaming law prohibits anyone with a felony conviction from holding a license, but only if the case is less than 15 years ago.
The newspaper also said DeNaples' application "had been dogged by allegations of contact with alleged organized crime figure Billy D'Elia, who is jailed pending trial on charges of money laundering and trying to have an informant killed."
But in the end, none of that mattered to the gaming control board, which would be involved in the application process for a slots casino at Bedford Downs.
Ties that bind?
Carmen and Ken Shick and Kendra Tabak have denied having anything to do with their grandfather's association with Strollo and other mobsters, but the racing commission is of the opinion that the association would somehow bind them to the Mafia.
That's a stretch, as the appeals court judges noted.
Given the approval of the DeNaples' application, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will be hard-pressed to apply a tougher standard to the developers of the proposed Bedford Downs track.
The two brothers and the sister aren't felons and no one is alleging that they have any connection to the Mafia.
Indeed, the appeals court even rejected the racing commission's contention that Bedford Downs' financing package did not pass muster. The justices said the commission had erred in its conclusion.
Considering the green light given DeNaples to proceed with the slots casino, and with the appeals court's clear ruling on behalf of Bedford Downs, Gov. Rendell's office should reassess its backing of the harness racing commission.