Sprague offers a deal on casino-lobbying issue

Posted: February 03, 2010

Dick Sprague was willing to make a deal.

Faced with skepticism yesterday in a joint hearing of the state Senate and House committees that oversee gambling, Sprague made this pitch:

He would register as a lobbyist for the casino trade group he started in 2007 if legislators would declare that it didn't need to be registered last year.

Sen. Jane Earll, R-Erie, who chairs the Senate panel, lowered her gaze on the famed Philadelphia attorney and said he was unlikely to find consensus on that idea. "You are wily, Mr. Sprague," Earll said as the three-hour hearing ended with no resolution.

Sprague formed the Pennsylvania Casino Association with nearly $1.6 million from three casinos, the SugarHouse in Philadelphia, Mount Airy in Mount Pocono, and The Rivers in Pittsburgh.

The group ran radio ads last year in five media markets seeking a lower tax rate on table games in pending legislation. It also sent three e-mails to every member of the General Assembly on gaming issues. Sprague hired former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala to advise the group, paying him $275,000 in 2008 and 2009 and $150,000 this year. He also hired Zappala's daughter for $65,000 per year.

The group's advocacy efforts raised questions about whether it should have registered as a lobbyist. The state lobbying law requires the Department of State to keep a registry of lobbyists, but enforcement authority is parceled out to the state Ethics Commission, the Attorney General's Office and the Supreme Court.

Sprague insisted that the radio ads were not lobbying because they did not mention legislation or ask listeners to take any action. He said the e-mails were lobbying, but did not trigger the requirement for state registration because they cost only $450 to send. Lobbyists must register if they spend more than $2,500 in a three-month period.

"You may call it technical, but it is the law as you wrote it," Sprague told the legislators.

"It costs you nothing to push that button and send [an e-mail] God-knows-where to everybody."

Sprague, a SugarHouse investor, said he would have registered the group as a lobbyist if Earll or state Rep. Mike O'Brian, whose district includes SugarHouse, had expressed concern to him.

That elicited an "Oh, please!" from Earll, who scolded Sprague for what she called the "cutesiness" of his claims that the group was not lobbying.

"By not registering, you look like you're hiding something," Earll chided Sprague.

Sprague gave as good as he got, suggesting the two committees should look at the lobbying that went on over several issues in the table-games legislation, approved on Jan. 6.

"If I were in your position, I'd take a look at [that] rather than this Mickey Mouse thing," Sprague said of the hearing.

He later noted that an extension of time to open Foxwoods, a second casino planned for Philadelphia, had been slipped into the legislation. He called that an example of a topic the two committees should focus on.