A Pennsylvania state rep isn’t giving up his search for answers regarding casino-driven tax fund allocations in his county. Rep. Bud Cook made headlines last week, calling for an audit of the Washington County fund, which is paid for by PA casino tax revenue.

Cook says $10 million of the fund’s money is unaccounted for. This revenue stems from the Hollywood Casino at The Meadows.

Rep. Cook’s six-year battle over PA casino funds intensifies

Cook made multiple unsuccessful attempts to audit the fund with the state Auditor General and now plans to take his fight to new state Attorney General Michelle Henry.

“I am demanding a forensic audit,” Cook said. “I am past asking.”

Under Pennsylvania state law, 2% of taxes from casino gaming revenue go to Local Share Accounts (LSAs), which redistributes that money to community projects. Washington County’s LSA, which comes from revenue generated by Hollywood Casino at The Meadows, has paid between $6.6 million and $8.7 million to LSAs yearly since 2013.

Since taking office in 2017, Cook has pursued a fight toward auditing the Washington County LSA after hearing from some residents about unfair selection processes for the allocation of program funds.

Beyond whether the process is “rigged,” Cook says many qualified organizations still don’t know the program exists.

Cook has built a website for LSAs, which includes basic information, supporting documentation, the program’s general ledger and even his filing history of Right-to-Know requests

He’s tried getting an audit in the past with state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in 2019. A more recent request made to Timothy DeFoor was shot down in February.

“The people of Washington County deserve openness, transparency and accountability in all aspects of state and local government. This is sorely lacking when it comes to the LSA program,” Mr. Cook wrote to DeFoor in his unsuccessful plea.

Other PA legislators have mixed opinions on Cook’s allegations

Rep. Tim O’Neal (R-Washington) threw his hat into Cook’s corner last Wednesday. O’Neal serves on the review committee responsible for recommending LSA fund allocation alongside other local, county and state officials and is a member of House Republican leadership.

O’Neal said he supports an audit, despite having seen zero evidence of misconduct. He believes Cook’s long-continued efforts make a strong case in its favor and that it would be in his constituents’ best interest.

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, who serves Washington County and sits on the review committee, cited Cook’s tribulations less enthusiastically.

“It seems to be his one and only passion,” Bartolotta said. She mentioned she also heard rumors of playing favorites with selections, but has experienced firsthand they are untrue.

Washington County commissioners claim LSA process is transparent

More dissent came from Washington County Commissioner chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan and fellow Commissioner Larry Maggi

Vaughan met with Cook years ago and called him “very accusatory and aggressive.” She said the county has nothing to hide regarding an audit.

Maggi spoke on the supposed lack of transparency in review committee meetings. He says regular audits already occur, and meetings are streamed online with public voting. “I am not sure how much more transparent we can get,” Maggi said.

In 2022, the review committee received $21 million worth of request proposals. The fund had about $7.7 million to award, leaving two-thirds of applications turned away.

Cook faces an uphill battle against county officials and bureaucracy

When a majority of LSA requests are denied, concerns around favoritism will naturally arise. This is where Cook’s battle began six years ago.

Once the committee makes its recommendations, it turns them in to the county commissioners. The commissioners notify the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), which has the final say.

So, who does Cook want to audit?

The DCED contracted the Redevelopment Authority of Washington County to administer the program, including providing funding for all approved recommendations. Authority executive director Robert Griffin said an independent accounting firm performs annual audits and has never found a discrepancy.

Griffin added that the audit information is publicly available and that Cook’s assertions were inconsistent with the findings.

But Cook has struggled to get an audit in the first place. His most recent attempt at a state audit received a response from DeFoor’s legislative director, John Hershey, saying:

“We would face substantial difficulty auditing the LSA funds. For the time being, we are prioritizing other audits that we feel will produce measurable results for all Pennsylvania taxpayers.”

Chances are, current Attorney General Henry will feel the same way.

Recent LSA program recipients in Washington County

The Washington County LSA program began in 2008 and has served as a framework for other counties with gambling-driven LSAs. Funds go toward community improvement, economic improvement, job training and matters of public interest.

Significant investments last year included:

  • Washington County Historical Society Research & Education Center: $355,000
  • Centerville Clinics Lab Equipment: $329,000
  • Mon Valley Business Resource Center: $250,000
  • Washington County Home Rehabilitation & Access Programs: $250,000
  • Fallowfield Bridge Repair: $200,000
  • Trinity School District STEM Job Training: $100,000
  • Ignite Business Incubator: $100,000

Investment by category:

  • Community Improvement: $2.4 million across 20 projects
  • Sanitary Sewer Improvements: $2.2 million across 10 projects
  • General Public Interest: $1.2 million across nine projects
  • Water improvements: $892,000 across four projects
  • Economic Improvement: $350,000 across two projects
  • Job Training: $100,000 for one project

Lead image: Shutterstock.com