Octogenarian lawyer Richard A. Sprague delights in filleting witnesses. But last week, he was the one getting grilled.

A committee of state lawmakers called Sprague and others to Harrisburg to explain what the Pennsylvania Casino Association is all about.

To some, the organization he started in 2007 looks a lot like a lobbying firm. If so, that could pose a problem: The PCA didn't register, as lobbying firms must under Pennsylvania law.

Surely a superlawyer such as Sprague would never skirt the law. If anyone knows the law, it's Dick Sprague.

Just ask him. When State Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester) questioned why Sprague didn't seek guidance from the State Ethics Commission on whether to register, Sprague shot back, "I think I'm a better lawyer than they are."

Sprague jousted with lawmakers for more than three hours. He said the PCA was formed to educate the public about the gaming industry. The testimony detailed how that education process worked.

First, Sprague got three of the state's slots parlors to pony up a total of $1.6 million for the PCA. Gambling Lesson One: Ante up.

Then the group went looking for a topflight, ah, educator. The search turned up a well-qualified candidate: Stephen A. Zappala Sr., the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

The PCA initially paid Zappala $275,000 a year to be its chairman. It also hired Zappala's daughter as director of operations for $65,000 a year. You just can't have enough Zappalas on the payroll.

Stephen Zappala didn't seem to know his job title when lawmakers asked him. But he's sure he didn't stoop to lobbying. Rather, his role was to give Sprague advice and information "anywhere, anytime, anyhow." In other words, nice work if you can get it.

The PCA also made Lisa DeNaples, a principal at Mount Airy Casino in the Poconos, one of its directors. Folks who are "educated" about the state's fledgling gambling racket will recall that she took over the slots parlor after her father, Louis DeNaples, was indicted for allegedly lying to state gaming regulators about his mob ties.

Those charges were dropped. In return, Louis DeNaples, who has a previous felony conviction unrelated to gaming, agreed to turn over control of his slots parlor to his family.

Sprague does legal work for the Mount Airy slots parlor, as well as the proposed SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia and the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh - the three that funded the PCA. He is also one of SugarHouse's investors. Back when SugarHouse got its license, Sprague was still good friends with former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, who helped craft the state's gambling legislation and is now in federal prison for corruption.

As a casino lawyer, casino investor, and head of a casino trade group, Sprague is clearly a player in Pennsylvania gambling. And he said he personally met with eight state lawmakers in 2008, including House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware).

But Sprague says he was not lobbying anyone. He says he told each of them: "I don't want you to do a thing for me." That may make him the only person in the gambling industry not looking for a favor in Harrisburg.

The PCA also ran a radio ad last fall, when lawmakers were debating whether to permit table games in the slots parlors. The bill passed.

Sprague says the ad didn't amount to lobbying, because it didn't urge lawmakers to vote for anything. It only touted the benefits of gaming. (Not highlighted were the social ills that come with casinos, such as gambling addiction, crime, and prostitution.)

The PCA's other major "education" effort also took place last fall. That's when it sent all the state's legislators three e-mails about gambling taxes and casino licenses.

Sprague conceded that those e-mails constituted lobbying. However, he said they did not cost enough to trigger the legal requirement to register as a lobbyist.

Told you Sprague was a good lawyer. But, since he is also a good guy, he has offered to register his group - if lawmakers agree that it wasn't required to be registered last year.

Hey, Dick, thanks for the education on the legal fine points and how Pennsylvania's gambling industry really works.

Paul Davies is The Inquirer's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at pdavies@phillynews.com.