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Slots officials see no conflict in fundraising

Most states - including New Jersey - prohibit gambling regulators from raising money for political campaigns.

The reason: It could look like a conflict of interest when a gambling company contributes to a gambling regulator's favorite candidate or cause.

In New Jersey, casino control commissioners can't even raise money for charity. Michigan and Louisiana also ban political fund-raising.

Pennsylvania has chosen to be an exception.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in an early draft of its ethics policy suggested banning such political fund-raising but, after some board members objected, removed the ban from the policy before approving it this month.

Gambling board chairman Thomas A. "Tad" Decker said the board discussed banning political activity but rejected the idea after some members said they were concerned a ban would inhibit free speech.

Decker said the board might revisit the issue, along with others, depending on the volume of public comment it receives during an ongoing 30-day comment period.

Among those members said to oppose the ban was Joseph W. "Chip" Marshall 3d. Marshall has long been active in politics and in political fund-raising.

His name appeared along with those of two dozen other sponsors on a May 2 fund-raising invitation for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) at the Rittenhouse Hotel.

Marshall declined to comment on why he opposed the political ban, saying that earlier drafts of the ethics policy are confidential and represent private deliberations among board members.

"I have never sought or solicited campaign contributions from anyone with an interest in gaming," Marshall said in a statement issued through board spokesman Nick Hays.

Marshall, who also serves as chief executive officer of Temple Health Systems, added that he had not had any substantive discussions about gambling with Santorum and had been a longtime supporter of the campaigns of both Santorum and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.).

Last week, some lawmakers called the board's ethics policy "weak" compared with other states', many of which place an outright ban on receiving gifts and engaging in political activity. Some took specific aim at the issue of political fund-raising.

"Board members should be prohibited from engaging in any form of partisan political activity," said Gary Tuma, a spokesman for State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), who played a key role in drafting the slots law. "Fund-raising, campaigning, and endorsing political candidates create potential problems of perceived political bias and favoritism in the actions of the board."

Decker said he recognized a difference between making political contributions and raising them.

"I'm not that uncomfortable with board members contributing to a campaign," Decker said. "But participating in a more general way opens the board to criticism."

Decker said he had stopped participating in political fund-raising and planned to constrain his own charitable fund-raising efforts.

"I'm on many boards that have severe money needs, but I've had to stay off certain development committees," he said.

Carl Zeitz, who served on the New Jersey Casino Control Commission from 1980 to 1988, likened gambling-board members to judges, who interpret the state gambling law and make decisions on gambling-license applications.

State codes of judicial conduct prohibit judges from soliciting campaign contributions or engaging in political activity.

"You should not be able to participate in party politics any more than any judge should, because the impartiality, objectivity and fairness will be subject to question," Zeitz said.

The laxity of the state gambling board's current policy contrasts sharply with Pennsylvania's gambling law, which sought to insulate public officials from the influence of gambling companies by banning contributions from gambling executives to state political campaigns.

"Our preference is to not have board members engage in political activity, at the least fund-raising, but, at the same time, we recognize in their other professions, which the law allows them to have, they may have to be active on political fronts," said Drew Crompton, chief counsel to Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer (R., Blair).

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