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The legal case against casino probe

The issue being raised is said to be whether a county prosecutor has jurisdiction to review gaming board actions.

Lawyers for a Scranton multimillionaire are trying to convince the state Supreme Court that a county prosecutor lacks the legal standing to investigate the way the businessman won his casino license.

In sealed filings, lawyer Richard A. Sprague asks the high court to shut down the probe by the Dauphin County prosecutor on the grounds that it is politically inspired and represents little more than a fishing expedition, several sources said.

It is unclear whether he will be ultimately successful, but for the moment Sprague has succeeded in blocking several key witnesses from testifying. On Tuesday, state Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille issued a stay blocking their testimony until the full court can consider the status of the probe.

One key issue is the right of Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. to launch an investigation into the decision by the Gaming Control Board to award Louis A. DeNaples a license to operate a $412 million casino in the Poconos.

While Marsico would not discuss the jurisdiction issue, the prosecutor's aides said the office can investigate any matter that takes place in the county. DeNaples' testimony before the gaming board occurred in Harrisburg, the Dauphin County seat.

Marsico, a Republican, declined yesterday to respond directly to Sprague's arguments, citing rules mandating secrecy for grand jury investigations. He did offer a general comment.

"This office operates independent of political pressures," Marsico said. "We look to do the right thing in every case."

In a brief interview, Sprague declined to talk about the case. He told a reporter, in part: "I think it is outrageous for you or your paper to ask any questions about a matter that you believe is under seal."

In his ruling Tuesday, Castille stayed three orders that had been issued by Todd A. Hoover, the lower-court judge presiding over the Dauphin County grand jury.

Castille happened to be the justice on duty for emergency petitions, said L. Stuart Ditzen, spokesman for the state court system.

Grand jury proceedings usually are conducted in secret, but sometimes aspects become public when appeals are filed. In this case, Sprague's legal briefs were sealed, though the Supreme Court's docket did disclose that he filed the "emergency application for review" on Monday.

Castille's one-sentence order was not sealed.

Marsico has about a week to respond to Sprague's motion.

The prize in the high-stakes legal fight is the bid by DeNaples to soon open a 2,500-slots casino east of Wilkes-Barre.

DeNaples, 66, is a longtime business and civic power in the Scranton area, and a major donor to Democrats and Republicans. He was granted his license in December.

In making him a licensee, the board decided he had adequately rebuffed old allegations that he had ties to a reputed mobster in Northeastern Pennsylvania, William D'Elia.

In launching his own investigation, Marsico is known to be scrutinizing those allegations, calling D'Elia, among others, as a grand jury witness.

Attorney General Tom Corbett said his office and Marsico had concurrent jurisdiction in the matter. Marsico had a related investigation under way "and we saw no reason to duplicate what they were already doing," Corbett said.

State police investigators have been assisting the Dauphin County probe. Privately, some in the state police have been critical of the gaming board's investigations and bitter that the gaming board used its own investigative staff, rather than relying on the state police.

In leveling criticism of the Dauphin County probe, Sprague says the investigation is part of a move by the state police to discredit the Gaming Control Board, according to court sources.

Legal experts said yesterday that Sprague's appeal to the top state court was rare but not unprecedented.

For instance, last year William A. DeStefano, a veteran Philadelphia defense attorney, won two stays from the Supreme Court involving subpoenaed grand jury testimony of Lancaster newspaper reporters. A few months later, the full court, after reviewing filings in the case, ordered the reporters to testify.

David Rudovsky, another experienced defense lawyer and a law professor, said he found it unusual that the court had intervened.

That said, Rudovsky added, "it may be that on full review, the court will allow the grand jury proceeding to continue."