One of the many classic scenes in the movie Casablanca occurs when the owner of Rick’s Café helps a young Bulgarian couple win at a rigged game of roulette.
The scene is reminiscent of how legalized gambling has unfolded here in Pennsylvania. In public everything seems on the up and up, but behind the scenes the game is tilted in favor of the well-connected.
Take the latest efforts by Foxwoods Casino to extend the deadline for it to open in Philadelphia. A story in Sunday’s Inquirer detailed how power lawyer and Foxwoods lobbyist Stephen A. Cozen navigated Harrisburg’s back rooms of power to buy more time for the casino to get up and running.
Foxwoods had missed previous deadlines due to opposition from City Hall and nearby residents. Now the faltering economy is making it difficult for Foxwoods to secure financing for the project.
State gaming regulators told Foxwoods it must open by May 2011 or lose its license. But then Cozen leaped into action, first turning to his old friend Gov. Rendell for help.
Rendell sent Cozen to see legislative leaders, including Democrats Todd Eachus and Dwight Evans in the House and Republican Dominic Pileggi in the Senate. Rendell also put his chief of staff on the case.
Cozen made the appointed rounds, including a sit-down with Rep. Michael Gerber (D., Montgomery), a Rendell family friend who also runs the House Democrats’ campaign fund.
Presto! Last month, as lawmakers haggled over a 230-page bill to legalize poker and other table games, a 42-word sentence was slipped into the measure. The sentence said the state Gaming Control Board could extend a casino’s license for 36 months or until December 2012.
Foxwoods had its needed breathing room.
No one will say who exactly put the language in the bill. Rendell, like Rick in Casablanca, played by Humphrey Bogart, claims he “sticks his neck out for nobody.”
Explaining his relationship to Cozen and others tied to casinos, Rendell said, “Having ‘suck’ with me doesn’t mean I will do stuff for you.” In political jargon, having ‘suck’ means having influence.
Rendell claims the Cozen and Foxwoods connections played no role in getting the extension. OK, but Cozen has contributed nearly $150,000 to Rendell’s campaigns since 2000. The law firm he founded, Cozen & O’Connor, gave almost another $70,000. And Rendell’s son joined that firm in September.
The current head of the Cozen firm is Thomas A. “Tad” Decker, a former college classmate of Rendell’s who used to chair the state Gaming Board. Yes, the same board that awarded Foxwoods its gaming license. Decker recused himself from that vote. Now he is back at the firm, which now represents Foxwoods. Aces all around.
The key investors behind Foxwoods include New Jersey businessman Lewis Katz; developer Ron Rubin and Comcast-Spectacor owner Ed Snider. Those three are some of Rendell’s longest and biggest campaign contributors.
But clearly, influence and money had nothing to do with Cozen securing Foxwoods’ extension. Or as Rick quipped after the Bulgarian won at the rigged roulette wheel: “He’s just a lucky guy.”