Cecil slots may be delayed as owner awaits ruling on anti-slots campaign

Penn National Gaming has been involved in anti-slots campaign in Arundel; lottery commission conditionally approves Cecil project

September 16, 2010|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Penn National Gaming says it might delay the scheduled opening this month of the state's first slots casino in Cecil County, as state regulators examine whether the gambling giant inappropriately interfered with another company's efforts to build a casino in Anne Arundel County.

The State Lottery Commission conditionally approved Penn National Gaming's license Thursday, but it did not rule on claims by Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. that Penn National breached its licensing agreement for a 1,500-machine slots parlor in Perryville. Regulators decided to seek guidance from the state attorney general's office about what to do next.

Karen M. Bailey, a spokeswoman for Penn National, said the company wants to wait for legal clarification to determine whether the company can continue its involvement in a campaign against a November referendum on slots in Arundel.

Penn National has agreed to help own and operate Laurel Park racetrack. The Maryland Jockey Club, the co-owner, has financed an effort to stop a Cordish slots parlor at Arundel Mills mall and steer slots toward Laurel.

"We want all information and facts before going forward," Bailey said.

Cordish conended that Penn National had wrongly involved itself in the Arundel campaign. State law prohibits any company from holding more than one slots license or interfering with another licensee.

While the commission's decision allows Penn National to go forward with its project, questions remain about the company's ability to be involved in the Anne Arundel slots process. Regulators had harsh words about Penn National's participation.

Commission Chairman J. Kirby Fowler Jr. said he was "more than a little concerned" about allegations that Penn National was obstructing slots in Anne Arundel.

"It smells bad," Fowler said.

Cordish asked the Lottery Commission in August to levy substantial fines against Penn National for its support of efforts to stop a casino near the mall. The complaint says Penn National is supporting Citizens Against Slots at the Mall, a group that worked to get the referendum on the ballot. The citizens group got financial support from the Maryland Jockey Club.

James L. Shea, an attorney for Cordish, urged the commission to approve Penn National's license only with conditions that require the company to stop its involvement in the Anne Arundel situation.

"Penn National Gaming is actively trying to delay, prevent and control in Anne Arundel County, and that delay costs Maryland $1 million a day," Shea said.

Michael D. Berman, an attorney for Penn National, rejected that, saying all of Penn National's entities are constitutionally protected to engage in political speech.

"There is no statute or regulation limiting that speech in any way," Berman said. "Nowhere does the statute give the commission the authority. [Cordish] simply wants to stop and chill political speech it dislikes."

After the lawyers' presentations, commission Vice Chairman Matthew Thomas said he was not trying to "indict" Penn National, but the company's actions could be perceived as "obstructionist."

"I don't want to paint you here as a villain," said Thomas, adding, "I highly encourage you to work with this commission."

Commissioner Kimberly Robertson said she was "very disappointed" with what she said appeared to be "attempts to derail the Anne Arundel zoning process."

The apparent rebuke by the commission caused Thomas Auriemma, vice president and chief compliance officer at Penn National, to request that the commission delay approving its license to open Hollywood Casino Perryville on Sept. 30. Auriemma said he was requesting a continuance "until these matters can be sorted out."

The commission denied Auriemma's request.

"They continue to lose in the courts," Bailey said of Cordish. "This is just one last-ditch attempt to find another venue that might listen to them."

Joseph Weinberg, a Cordish vice president, said Penn National's request for the commission to hold off on approving the license "showed they were more interested in delaying Anne Arundel County than opening in Cecil and earning Maryland money."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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