A federal court has overturned the state's ban on political contributions from people involved in the gaming industry, ruling that the law aimed at curbing the influence of casino interests was too broad.
The suit was brought by Pasquale "Pat" Deon Sr., a Bucks County businessman and chairman of the SEPTA board who is also a major shareholder in the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem. Deon was joined by Maggie Hardy Magerko, an owner of 84 Lumber, who is a beneficiary of the trust that owns Lady Luck Casino Nemacolin in Fayette County.
U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo, sitting in Harrisburg, ruled Wednesday that the Pennsylvania Gaming Act of 2004 unconstitutionally abrogates the First Amendment rights of Deon and Magerko and "those similarly situated" by banning them from making political contributions.
The suit named the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and Attorney General Josh Shapiro as defendants. The PGCB denied the allegations and claimed the burden the ban placed on Deon and Magerko was minimal.
Rambo, in the summary judgment, said the state's ban was too broad, preventing any principal, key employee, or licensee of a gaming operation or supplier from making any contribution to a candidate or a political action committee.
"The stated purpose of the law is legitimate and commendable to the extent it seeks to prohibit corruption or the appearance of corruption, yet a laudable purpose is not dispositive as to the law's constitutionality," she wrote.
The judge suggested that the legislature may explore ways to restrict political contributions of gaming industry principals by more strictly defining who is subject to the ban, or by rewriting the law to limit aggregate contributions."
"The court holds only that the ban in its current form goes much further than necessary to achieve its stated purpose of eliminating corruption and the appearance of corruption," Rambo wrote in a 32-page memorandum.
A spokesman for the gaming control board declined to comment while the board was reviewing the opinion. The state could appeal the decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the state's ban in 2009, which initially outlawed large campaign contributions from key parties in the gaming industry. The legislature responded by banning all contributions.
Deon, who is also a member of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, is significantly involved in the management of the Sands property, but Magerko does not have any direct involvement with the industry, Rambo noted in her decision.
"Yet, the law makes no distinction between the two when it comes to banning political contributions," she said.
The courts have reached conflicting decisions on restrictions in several states on political contributions from gaming officials. New Jersey prevents casino managers and corporate owners from making direct or indirect campaign donations. Maryland law prevents donations from any shareholders with a 5 percent or greater interest in a casino.