FOX 29 Investigates: Casino Gaming And Bar Gathering

FOX 29 Investigates: Casino Gaming And Bar Gathering

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PHILADELPHIA -

FOX 29 Investigates has learned a prominent, state representative alerted a top Pennsylvania gaming official after he witnessed a "gathering" inside a Harrisburg bar between two gaming board members and a casino lobbyist.

The news comes while the state's gaming board is deciding who gets the license for a new casino in Philadelphia, FOX 29's Jeff Cole reports.

The stakes are high and the money is big. It's why four groups have produced glittering mock-ups of what they think a new casino in the city should look like.

The state will soon hand out one more casino license here, and all four applicants want it badly.

William Ryan heads the Board which will make the call.

"Commissioner, is this a fair process?" Cole asked.

"Yes," Ryan answered.

We had an important question for him: "Did those commissioners make a bad call by meeting with him during this high-stakes process?

"I'm not going to say that, no," Ryan told FOX 29.

You read right.

FOX 29 Investigates has learned there was a gathering in this bar at the Harrisburg Hilton after 8:30 p.m. on the night of Tuesday, March 18.

Sitting at one of the tables were Commissioners Anthony Moscato and Keith McCall, two members of the Pa. Gaming Control Board, the panel which will award the casino license

While there, they were joined by longtime Harrisburg lobbyist Rocco Pugliese, who lobbies for Market East Associates, also known as Market8. They're one of the groups vying for the Philly Casino license.

State Rep. Michael Vereb (R-Montgomery Co.) walked into the bar and saw them.

"The place was full. There were a lot of people in the place," Vereb said.

Cole asked the state rep, "You see the two gaming board members and the lobbyist, you walk up to them because you know the lobbyist and one of the members?"

"Yes, I do," Vereb said. "I just said, 'Hi,' went about minding my own business and, to be honest with you, as much as I have been involved in gaming, I never would have thought either of the two of them would participate in anything inappropriate. It just never came to my mind."

He added, "Maybe a bad decision was made that they would have gotten together," Vereb told FOX 29.

Both commissioners Moscato and McCall say they did nothing wrong.

As for gaming lobbyist Rocco Pugliese, he shut the door when we tried to ask.

But just the gathering of two board members and a casino lobbyist raises the question of whether the Gaming Control Board's Code of Ethics was broken.

According to the code, it's designed to prevent "...the actual or appearance of corruption..." and the "...avoidance of actions that would erode public confidence."

The ethics code specifically bars "ex parte" communications between license applicants and board members about "any matter which may reasonable come before the Board."

Awarding the new Philly casino license is before the board right now.

So, during a recent meeting of the Gaming Control Board we asked Moscato, "Did you have drinks with Rocco Pugliese, who represents Market8?"

"Yes, I had drinks with Rocco Pugliese," Moscato said.

Did he cross the line?

"I do not believe it did because we did not discuss the Philadelphia licensing issue. I've known Rocco for 20 years. Commissioner McCall has known Rocco for many decades. We all know the parameters that we can cross. We don't live in a cloister, and we're just old friends."

McCall didn't show-up at the board meeting he says due to a medical appointment.

By phone, he claimed he did not discuss the Philadelphia casino license with Pugliese or break the ethics rule, but his recollection of what went on in the bar differs from Moscato's.

While Moscato says they did have drinks with lobbyist Pugliese, McCall says they did not. McCall claims Pugliese sat for just two or three minutes and left.

He says he paid the bar bill and even sent FOX 29 a copy. The receipt shows six drinks for he and Moscato charged to his American Express card: $88.50, with tip.

Again, when we tried to question lobbyist Pugliese at his shore home, he wasn't interested.

Gaming Board Head Bill Ryan says all is well.

"They've cleared 'em," Ryan said. "There was no …"

"The board's decided that this is OK?" Cole asked.

"There was no – the board is aware of the meeting and of the explanation given by the two members, and we on the board are comfortable that the matter is closed," Ryan said.

But it's not closed for Rep. Vereb, who says on April 2 – after receiving an anonymous letter describing the very meeting he'd witnessed in the bar – he called in the gaming board's executive director and state investigators, handed them the letter and told them what he saw in the bar.

"What is disturbing in all of this is that the Bureau of (Investigations and Enforcement), charged by statute to oversee the gaming law, has been radio-silent on the matter since it's been handed to them," said Vereb.

And there's one more thing.

Moscato grew tired of our questions and walked off, but not before a man he was with tried to block our camera.

Before he left, we asked if he communicates with casino lobbyist Pugliese in another way.

"Have you ever had cell phone text contact with Mr. Pugliese?" Cole asked.

"Yes, I have," Moscato answered.

"Once again, is the perception something where you may have failed with," Cole asked.

"No, it's not. I don't know how long you want to go on with this line of questioning. I don't feel I made a mistake. You may. Other people may. We have not talked about the Philadelphia licensure," Moscato said.

FOX 29 Investigates has made what's known as a right-to-know request to the board for those text messages. We are waiting.

In an email to FOX 29, the gaming board says the conversation in the bar focused on a change of leadership at the University of Pittsburgh, not gaming.

The board says they have spoken to Moscato and McCall and believes there was no violations of its ethics code.

As to Moscato's claim that they had drinks with Pugliese, the board now says he was speaking in a generic sense, and that the three men did not have drinks together.

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