The two-year history of slot machines in Maryland, already marred by false starts and legal battles, took another odd twist Thursday when the state awarded a gaming license to a casino owner that didn’t want it.
Penn National Gaming Inc. asked the Maryland State Lottery Commission to put off issuing the license after commissioners questioned the company’s opposition to the development of a casino in Anne Arundel County.
“I am more than a little concerned by the conduct in Anne Arundel County,” said J. Kirby Fowler, chairman of the lottery commission. His views were echoed by all of his colleagues, who stopped short of accusing Penn National of wrongdoing.
Vice Chairman Matthew Thomas said he expects the casino licensing and development process “to be as wholesome as possible.”
“Any licensee that is not adhering to that is going to have a problem with me,” he said.
Penn National has been locked in a bitter dispute with The Cordish Cos., which plans to build a casino next to the Arundel Mills shopping mall. The two companies support competing groups trying to sway county voters ahead of the November election, when a ballot referendum could decide the fate of the Cordish casino.
Cordish filed a complaint over Penn National’s actions with the commission in August, requesting the commission fine Penn National and require it to stay out of the Anne Arundel fight.
The commission asked Thursday for guidance from the attorney general on its jurisdiction in the dispute, and possible sanctions that could come from it.
“We want to be able to see what the attorney general’s opinion is, and have to opportunity to confer with our counsel,” Penn National spokeswoman Karen Bailey said of the request to delay the license.
But, the commission, tired of delays, moved ahead over Penn National’s objections, giving the company the go ahead to operate Hollywood Casino Perryville in Cecil County. If Penn National holds to the scheduled Sept. 30 opening date, it would be the first casino to open in Maryland.
“We felt that they had satisfied all of our requirements,” Fowler said.
Awarding the license could also make more clear the commission’s oversight of Penn National. Some commissioners said they don’t believe Penn National violated regulations before Thursday, but that with a license in hand, the company could be held to a higher standard.
Cordish Vice President Joe Weinberg said Penn National’s request for a delay shows how divergent the company’s goals are from those of the state.
“They would rather spend their time delaying Anne Arundel County than opening Cecil County,” Weinberg said.
Fowler said he was not sure when the attorney general’s opinion would be ready. The lottery commission will next meet Oct. 22.
Cordish claims Penn National broke rules for licensed gaming operators in the state. Maryland requires gaming companies to make public any gaming-related conflicts of interests and cooperate with their fellow license holders to further the state’s goals — getting casinos up and running and making money.
Penn National is the part owner of the Maryland Jockey Club — one of the key players in the coalition opposing Cordish’s casino project — and its horse tracks. The club sought a slots license for Laurel Park, which is still mentioned as a potential alternative to Arundel Mills. And this spring, before Penn National had an interest in the club, it spent nearly $660,000 collecting signatures to put the casino issue on the ballot.
“There’s a virus in the lottery system here, and it’s going to take some strong medicine to get that virus rooted out,” Cordish attorney James L. Shea said, addressing the commission
Penn National defended its involvement in the referendum campaign as constitutionally protected speech, and accused Cordish of attempting to “chill political speech it doesn’t like.”
“Free speech, which is what this is all about, is not a virus,” said Michael Berman, representing Penn National. “Censorship is a virus, and that’s what [Cordish] wants.”