Anti-casino activists called yesterday for the firing of the state's top gambling regulator because his agency is trying to halt a May 15 referendum to sharply limit casino development in Philadelphia.

Casino-Free Philadelphia, which persuaded City Council to approve a ballot question proposing to ban casinos from residential areas, called on Gov. Rendell to remove Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board Chairman Thomas "Tad" Decker for an alleged conflict of interest, among other reasons.

"He has abandoned his role to protect the people" in favor of gambling interests, Casino-Free Philadelphia said in a statement.

The group's coordinator, Daniel Hunter, said the Gaming Control Board's lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to block the referendum prompted the call for Decker's firing. The suit was filed last week; a decision is likely by the end of the month.

"His decision to sue . . . really is crossing a line of moving out of a regulatory body protecting the public to one actively advocating for the casino industry," Hunter said.

Decker flatly rejected the allegations, and Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said the governor had "full faith" in the chairman.

"The casino opponents should realize that Mr. Decker was simply following the mandate of the legislation as passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor," Ardo said. The 2004 law authorized 14 slots casinos in the state, including two in Philadelphia. In December, the gaming board licensed SugarHouse Casino in Fishtown and Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia in South Philadelphia.

The group also cited Decker's links to the prominent Philadelphia law firm Cozen O'Connor, which Decker left when Rendell chose him to be Gaming Control Board chairman.

Cozen O'Connor now represents SugarHouse, which, along with Foxwoods, beat out three other competitors for Philadelphia's two slots parlor licenses. Decker is a longtime friend of founding partner Patrick O'Connor. He said he regularly had dinner with O'Connor and was also friends with a number of lawyers at the firm, but insisted they had never discussed any issues that would come before the board.

Such discussions would be illegal unless they were publicly disclosed.

"Everybody that knows me knows not to bring up an ex parte discussion," Decker said in a interview yesterday. "I'd be at [U.S. Attorney] Pat Meehan's office the next freaking day."

Cozen O'Connor and Decker have not ruled out the possibility he could return to the firm when his gaming board term is up at the end of this year. Decker is allowed to return to work for the firm, though he cannot represent clients before the Gaming Control Board for two years.

Decker recused himself from the final vote on SugarHouse's application because of his connection to the law firm, but he said at the time he wanted only to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Cozen O'Connor did not represent SugarHouse when Decker was at the firm - it first registered with the Gaming Control Board on Dec. 15, 2006, five days before the license vote. It now represents SugarHouse in its separate lawsuit to halt the referendum.

Critics have said Decker should have recused himself from the entire license deliberation.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields

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