Back-room gambler: A former justice should be up front on casino work

Written by Susan Mannella on .

emember how Hallie Berry followed up her Oscar-winning performance in "Monster's Ball" with the Razzie-winning role of "Catwoman"? Movie fans had expected more, but her decision left them disappointed.

That's how we felt upon learning that former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr. is leading an organization of casino operators. It's not that a justice from the state's highest court cannot have another career after leaving the bench; it's that we expected more, even though casinos are legal in Pennsylvania.

In the case of Mr. Zappala, who left the bench in 2002, there is more to it than how he's making a living. We don't understand why his role with the organization was concealed and why the group still professes to be something other than what it is.

The Pennsylvania Casino Association was incorporated as a nonprofit trade association in 2007. For two years, Mr. Zappala was its executive director and his daughter, Michele Zappala Peck, who's on the ballot for Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, was the operations director. Yet neither of their names appears on incorporation papers, tax filings, press releases or advertisements by the group.

Its tax filings say the group's purpose is "to improve the business conditions in the gaming industry generally and to create a better understanding of the gaming industry by the general public, elected officials, other decision makers and the media through education and advocacy." Its recent efforts have been aimed at protecting casino interests as lawmakers consider tax rates and fees on table games to be added at Pennsylvania's slots parlors.

Nonetheless, the group is not registered with the state as a lobbyist, and Ken Smukler, who became its executive director three weeks ago, insists that it isn't one. He said the group doesn't need to be a lobbyist because the members of the association - Rivers Casino of Pittsburgh, Mount Airy Casino Resort in the Poconos and SugarHouse of Philadelphia - each has its own.

Yet Mr. Smukler said the association has been sending e-mails to lawmakers on legislation and paying for radio advertising. That sounds like lobbying to Barry Kauffman, head of the public advocacy group Common Cause, and it sounds like lobbying to us.

Suggestions that the Supreme Court's past gambling-related decisions are tainted by Mr. Zappala's new association seem exaggerated because he was off the court when casino licensing came before the justices. But the lack of openness about his involvement in the association is problematic, and Pennsylvanians are left wondering just what the politically influential Mr. Zappala is doing to help the organization and what the state's casino operators expect of him.


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