Penn National Gaming Inc. appears to have a clear path to wage a campaign against a proposed Anne Arundel County casino after an attorney general’s opinion paved the way this week.
The company has made no secret of its desire to land the county’s lone gaming license, and a spokesman said Wednesday that Penn National has options available to own a casino there after opening the state’s first slots parlor in Cecil County on Sept. 27.
“If we wanted to divest [Hollywood Casino Perryville], we could do that, though that’s not on the top of the list given our pride in owning that facility,” spokesman D. Eric Schippers said.
Penn National has publicly backed opponents of a proposal by The Cordish Cos. to build a casino next to the Arundel Mills shopping mall.
But the Maryland Lottery Commission does not have to power or right to stop Penn National from pumping money into a campaign to overturn the zoning Cordish needs to proceed, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler wrote in an 11-page opinion.
“Any future action will be carefully considered in light of this opinion from the Attorney General,” lottery Director Stephen Martino wrote in response to a request for comment about the opinion.
Martino said the lottery will continue to “review this opinion closely in the coming days.”
Commission Chairman J. Kirby Fowler deferred questions to Martino, and Vice Chairman Matthew Thomas declined to comment.
Fowler, at a September meeting, joined the rest of the commission in expressing their displeasure with Penn National’s actions.
“I’m more than a little concerned by the conduct in Anne Arundel County,” Fowler said.
The commission had requested Gansler clarify its jurisdiction and available sanctions in the spat between the gaming companies after Cordish filed a complaint asking the lottery to keep Penn National from butting into the county zoning referendum campaign and levy fines against it to make up for lost revenue.
Gansler, removing the teeth from any potential commission hearing on the matter, wrote that the commission was not granted power to regulate Penn National’s contributions, and “a court would likely find such an order unconstitutional” anyway.
“We knew this was frivolous,” Penn National spokesman Schippers said of the Cordish complaint. “We knew this was a cheap campaign tactic.”
After the opinion was released, Cordish maintained its stance that Penn National broke rules for licensed gaming operators in the state.
“The Attorney General’s opinion is just that,” wrote Cordish General Counsel Charles Jacobs. “It’s one lawyer’s opinion. Our lawyers are convinced that it is a contract issue, not a free speech issue.”
Although state law precludes a company from holding an ownership stake in more than one slots license, Schippers said Penn National would find a way to come into compliance.
It could work to change the law, change the management or ownership structure of the Maryland Jockey Club — the entity that would actually apply for the license — or sell Hollywood Casino Perryville, which Schippers said is a possibility, but not one that Penn National has actively considered.
Penn National became part owner of the Maryland Jockey Club and its racetracks in the summer and has since funneled money into a coalition opposed to the Cordish plan. The group, No Slots at the Mall, has run television ads since Aug. 13 urging voters to turn down Cordish’s zoning and offering up Laurel Park, one of the club’s tracks, as an alternative to the mall.
Cordish, too, has paid for television ads since the first week in September. Both sides are required to disclose their spending on the referendum in state reports due late Friday night.