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Rendell slots role eyed

| Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2006

HARRISBURG -- It is "troubling" that a top lawyer for Gov. Ed Rendell sent an e-mail to select state employees saying the administration must approve any state grants for slots casinos, a House Republican spokesman said Monday.

It suggests Rendell has a hand in the licensing process for casinos, said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.

The idea that Rendell's office "may know who's going to receive state grants flies in the face of their constant contention that they have no say in any of" the licensing for slots parlors, Miskin said.

The state Gaming Control Board, composed of appointees by the Democratic governor and legislative leaders of both parties, was set up to independently award slots licenses and regulate the industry. The board is expected to award the first licenses this summer. Seven ultimately will go to harness-racing and thoroughbred tracks.

Kevin Ortiz, spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said the e-mail from the agency's chief counsel, Steve Fishman, was routine and in no way suggests grants are being lined up for license winners.

"It's nothing," Ortiz said.

Fishman sent an e-mail Friday to top DCED officials, legislative staffers from both parties, and the governor's office in which he said his office had received a "directive" from the Office of General Counsel that "no grants for any track or slots operation is to be approved without approval by the governor's office."

In a subsequent e-mail, Fishman appeared to back away from that statement, saying the Office of General Counsel -- the top legal arm under Rendell -- "simply wants to make sure that all of us are careful to comply with the statutory limitations on grants to tracks and slots facilities. It does not mean that the governor's office is in any way supplanting our programmatic approval processes."

Ortiz said that meant the agency -- anticipating possible grant requests for improvements to help slots operators -- is reviewing various state laws and programs.

In yet another e-mail -- his third -- Fishman "recalled" the first e-mail.

Fishman could not be reached for comment yesterday. Gambling board spokesman Nick Hays didn't respond to a question about the grants issue.

David Washburn, the policy advisor to House Democratic leadership, said he interpreted the e-mail as "just a reaffirmation" not to use any existing grant programs to benefit casinos or racetracks.

Some state grant programs bar use of their money for anything related to gambling. By steering the grants through the governor's office, the administration could ensure the money does not go to casinos, according to Washburn.

In a separate move yesterday, the gambling board approved ethics rules prohibiting board members and employees from engaging in political activity, gambling in any of the state's casinos or talking privately with "any interested party."

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