While a grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing by the state Gaming Control Board in getting casinos up and running in Pennsylvania, the jury nonetheless made a compelling case for an overhaul of the way the fledgling agency regulates gambling.
Rather than offer up any indictments, the Allegheny County-based jury produced detailed critical findings and issued 21 recommendations that, if enacted, could bring greater reform.
The board was described as being overly secretive, and staffed by patronage hires rather than casino-industry professionals. Most damning, the jury said the agency had developed a track record of looking the other way when casino applicants had questionable backgrounds.
That portrait stands in direct contrast to one offered in response by the gaming board's chairman, Greg Fajt. He blasted the grand-jury report as a rehash, and said it was unfair to an agency that has "protected the public" and undergone improvements.
However, as yet one more public flogging of an agency that has been buffeted by controversy ever since it issued the first gambling licenses in late 2006, the grand jury report can hardly be shelved. At a minimum, legislative hearings in Harrisburg on the findings, planned for the summer, are a necessary next step.
Most important, the House Gaming Oversight Committee chaired by state Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester) needs to look once more at moving the investigations of gaming applicants out from under the Gaming Control Board and over to an independent agency like the state police or attorney general. That recommendation echoed a finding in 2008 by a Dauphin County grand jury.
The report last week detailed instances where gaming-board investigators were told to pull their punches on casino applicants whose unsavory pasts should have raised red flags. One way to avoid such slip-ups would be for background checks to be conducted at arm's length by truly independent investigators.
Many of the panel's other recommendations to professionalize the gaming board's operation would not require changes in state law and should be implemented by the board itself.
Above all, the gaming board should conduct most of its business outside of executive sessions. There's also a case to be made for expanding the prohibition on gaming-agency staff quitting to work for casino interests.
As other states launch competing casinos that whittle away Pennsylvania's impressive gambling revenues - and the inevitable problem gambling, crime, and social pathologies proliferate - the state's casino venture will be seen for what it is: a bad bet.
Meantime, state officials have to do everything possible to assure public confidence in Harrisburg's ability to regulate this industry - not act as if it's a player.