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State Treasurer McCord withdraws from gaming board sessions on Philly casino

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 2:12 p.m.

HARRISBURG — State Treasurer Rob McCord, who waged a legal battle to attend executive sessions as a non-voting member of the Gaming Control Board, told the board chairman he will not participate in closed-door sessions on applications for a second casino in Philadelphia.

McCord, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he did so in “an abundance of caution.” He received more than $57,000 in campaign donations from law firms and lobbyists representing gambling interests in 2011 and 2012. It is legal for him to do so and doesn't violate the agency's code of ethics, said Doug Harbach, a board spokesman. McCord's campaign did not want to comment.

McCord sued the board in May 2010 and signed a February 2012 settlement agreement to abide by its ethics policy. Commonwealth Court ruled he has the right to participate in the board's executive sessions.

Christopher Craig, McCord's chief counsel, in large part wrote the 2004 gaming law as a lawyer for ex-Sen. Vincent Fumo. Craig wrote a letter Jan. 27 on McCord's behalf to William H. Ryan Jr., the board chairman, noting that although McCord has a right to participate, he “recognizes that as a candidate for elective office, his participation in private deliberations concerning the competing merits of casino license applications may unfairly subject the board to claims of undue influence by disappointed applicants or those seeking political advantage.” McCord's office released the letter on Wednesday.

Records show McCord received more than $143,000 from “licensed entity representatives,” the law firms and lobbyists representing gambling interests, from 2007 through 2012, for his treasurer races.

McCord is one of seven Democrats running for governor in the May 20 primary. He was the top vote-getter among six of those candidates at the Democratic State Committee forum last Saturday, though he didn't meet the two-thirds vote threshold needed for endorsement.

The Democratic nominee likely will face Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in November.

McCord, Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser and Agriculture Secretary George Greig are the gambling board's non-voting members. The board has seven voting members, including four appointees of House and Senate leaders and three gubernatorial appointees.

McCord's office portrayed his legal battle to attend executive sessions as a fight for transparency. “Before he won the right to participate, the board was much less transparent,” said spokesman Gary Tuma.

In response, the board's attorneys argued the “participation of the treasurer, an elected official dependent on campaign contributions, taints the board with, at the very least, an appearance of corruption and could erode public confidence in the oversight of gaming, contrary to the express intent of the General Assembly.”

The court didn't agree, Tuma said, and the Commonwealth Court decision found no “appearance of impropriety.”

“While he does not have a vote, he does have influence over gambling entities,” Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, said of McCord. Still, said Tuma, McCord “doesn't feel there's a conflict of interest.”

Tuma said law firms and lobbying firms representing gaming companies have wide-ranging interests beyond gambling. He noted that politicians who appoint voting and non-voting board members accept campaign contributions and may have received them from some of those firms.

The board oversees 12 casinos. One casino, Sugar-House, operates in Philadelphia. The 2004 state law specified only two in that city; five applicants are vying for the second license.

Most licenses were awarded in 2006. McCord became treasurer in January 2009. The deadline for applications for the second Philadelphia casino was November 2012.

The board held public hearings on the license in Philadelphia on Jan. 28, 29 and 30.

Brad Bumsted and Melissa Daniels are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Bumsted at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com and Daniels at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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