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Gaming chairman targets 'conflict'

| Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011

HARRISBURG -- After spending two years overseeing an investigation of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the agency's new chairman wants to implement at least one recommendation from a state grand jury.

William H. Ryan Jr., the former acting attorney general appointed to lead the seven-member board, told the Tribune-Review he wants to move its investigative arm to the Attorney General's Office.

"The (Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement) investigates and the board adjudicates and, in most areas of government, there is a clear separation between those with investigative and those with judicial powers," he said. Moving it would "make sure we don't have this conflict of interest and make sure one doesn't bleed over to the other."

The board has opposed such a move, and Ryan acknowledged he is only one voice. But, "as chairman he's going to have a lot of influence," said Jerry Shuster, professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh.

"He's familiar with the background and all the shenanigans alleged to have occurred," Shuster said. "The fact that he's there adds a great deal of credibility to a place that needs a lot of credibility."

Ryan was acting attorney general in May when the grand jury issued a report sharply criticizing the board's award of most casino licenses in 2006, its culture of secrecy and its alleged patronage hiring for lawmakers. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett appointed Ryan to chair the board three months later.

Ryan is expected to testify today before the House Gaming Oversight Committee, which is considering a legislative response to the grand jury report. House Republicans prepared a 14-bill package, some of it in response to the grand jury.

The grand jury said that the board catered to casino applicants and that supervisors scrubbed investigators' reports of damaging information on applicants. It dissected aspects of one publicized case, in which the board approved a casino license for a convicted felon with alleged mob ties. The grand jury recommended no criminal charges.

Ryan, 62, the former Delaware County district attorney, was Corbett's top deputy in the Attorney General's Office. Corbett appointed Linda Kelly of Edgewood as his replacement. Ryan is paid $150,000 as gambling board chairman.

"I've only been here not quite a month," said Ryan, whose corner office in Strawberry Square is across a hallway from the entrance to the Attorney General's Office. "What I have picked up is, there's a lot for me to learn. I am making progress, but I realize there's a learning curve."

He said the grand jury report does not hamper his ability to carry out his duties. A lot changed since the activities of 2004-06 that the report outlined, Ryan said.

Yet, the report could frame his decisions. "I think every time an issue comes up, he'll do a quick mental scan of the grand jury report," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County.

Moving investigations to the attorney general requires a change in law. A House-passed bill of Vereb's is pending in the Senate, where members have shown little interest.

Rep. Florindo Fabrizio, D-Erie, a member of the House oversight panel, noted that a bipartisan task force that looked at the issue last session didn't recommend moving the investigations bureau. He said the General Assembly approved reforms that erected a "wall" between the bureau and board, to lessen potential for conflicts.

Ryan said that is problematic because the board employs the agents and is responsible for the conduct of employees.

"If they are not accountable to the board, then who are they accountable to?" he said.

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