Nearly all Pennsylvania casinos, and a number of key legislators, are principally united in support of online gaming. But those hoping to cross the regulatory bridge must first contend with an imposing foe: Sheldon Adelson.
And backed by the casino magnate’s estimated $28 billion fortune, an oppositional campaign is already underway in the state.
Adelson, Sands exerting influence in Harrisburg
Sands Bethlehem boss Mark Juliano testified recently at a hearing of Senator Kim Ward’s Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee. Echoing Adelson’s opposition, Juliano sharply criticized regulatory efforts.
“Today, proposals are being considered which will erode the successful progress we have made in Pennsylvania,” said Juliano, who also cautioned against allowing off-track betting and tavern gambling in the state. “Approving these proposals will undermine the operators who have built destinations and will place thousands of jobs at risk.”
Juliano said the additional options would counteract 11 years of operator investment in the state’s brick-and-mortar casinos. He noted Sands, which purchased and converted factory space once owned by the iconic Bethlehem Steel Corporation, has since poured almost $900 million into developing its Pennsylvania facilities.
“Internet gambling is a job killer that seeks to move jobs from casinos in Pennsylvania to server farms in foreign countries,” he said.
Regulation, Juliano told legislators, would “hurt the businesses that many in Harrisburg say they want to help.”
A powerful force in Harrisburg, Sands Bethlehem currently commands a market share of 15.9 percent among Pennsylvania casinos, second only to the 16.4 percent share posted by Bensalem-based Parx.
Earlier this year, a poll funded by Adelson was blasted by State Representative John Payne, an online gaming advocate and chair of the Pennsylvania House Gaming Oversight Committee.
“The entire poll is designed and orchestrated to give the answers they want,” said Payne, who sponsored a bill to regulate online play.
Adelson-backed lobby active in Pennsylvania
The Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, a lobbying group funded by Adelson, recently lauded efforts from Pennsylvania legislator Mario Scavello to thwart regulation. A ban was floated by Scavello, then a member of the Pennsylvania House, in 2014.
The bill proposed by Scavello, who is now a Senator representing the state’s 40th district, would have explicitly outlawed online gaming in Pennsylvania, punishing participants with fines and possible jail time.
Polls, however, indicated a resounding lack of support for the bill, and Scavello’s proposal soon lost traction.
CSIG made headlines last week after deluging Luzerne County with anti-online gaming mailers.
“Internet gambling is bad for workers and bad for families,” read the CSIG-branded literature, which encouraged citizens to contact Representative Aaron Kaufer with concerns. Kaufer confirmed last week that he had received several such phone calls.
On its website, CSIG assails virtual casino operators as irresponsible and reckless. Online gaming, the group says, could be co-opted for “nefarious purposes.”
Internet gaming “will reduce participation at brick and mortar casinos, with a commensurate impact on jobs in lodging, restaurant, entertainment and retail industries,” the group claimed.
Former senator spearheading campaign
Serving as CSIG co-chair is former Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, who appeared last month in the pages of Harrisburg’s Patriot-News. In an op-ed column, Lincoln reiterated a number of key CSIG talking points.
“Could your child access these games?” Lincoln wrote. “Would they want to try it? Would they want to see what it’s like to gamble, with your money?”
Lincoln has also speculated that virtual casinos could be used for criminal purposes.
“The FBI has said already that there is a definite threat there. It could be used for fraud and money laundering,” she said last year.
Lincoln’s lobbying firm, Lincoln Policy Group, was originally contracted by Adelson in 2014 as part of an “all hands on deck” push by the billionaire to outlaw online gaming.
Lobbying efforts continue elsewhere
Even in New Jersey, where no Adelson casinos currently operate, the 81-year-old resort magnate nonetheless attempted to influence online gaming policy in the state through personal ties to Governor Chris Christie.
Adelson also remains involved in efforts to outlaw online gaming at a federal level. South Carolina Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham, a key Adelson ally in Washington, recently introduced a bill to overturn the United States Department of Justice’s interpretation of the Federal Wire Act, the 2011 decision which paved the way for legalized online gaming in the country. Graham’s bill was written, in part, by Adelson lobbyists.
Since announcing his presidential bid, Graham has made opposition to online gaming a campaign centerpiece. Adelson has reciprocated with avid support for Graham, having donating to his past senatorial campaigns and, more recently, hosting fundraisers on behalf of a Graham Political Action Committee.
During the 2012 Republican primaries, Adelson and his family injected $20 million into the coffers of a foundering Newt Gingrich campaign, a move which substantially influenced the electoral landscape.