State Police, Gambling Board at Odds over Background Checks

Regulators and police debate who should be handling background inquiries on gaming employees and companies


HARRISBURG, Pa. -- State gambling regulators and the state police are at odds over how big a role the troopers should play in performing the tens of thousands of background investigations expected of gambling employees and companies hoping to do business in the state.

The disagreement comes as the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is rushing to license slot-machine operators so that the state's homeowners can realize gambling-financed property tax cuts as soon as possible.

Holdups, such as a six-month wait for the state Supreme Court to rule on a challenge to last year's slot-machine gambling law and internal disagreements over regulations, have contributed to the sense of urgency.

The state police have lobbied for an extensive role that would make them the repository of all intelligence gathered on gambling employees, executives and companies, with primary responsibility for performing background checks.

"We think that makes the most sense from the perspective of funneling all the information through one conduit," said Col. Jeffrey B. Miller, the state police commissioner.

But board members want their investigation and enforcement bureau to manage the information and split the background-check duties between state police and multiple private contractors the board expects to hire.

The state police don't have enough investigators or experience to handle the broad array of background checks in a short period of time, board members say.

"It's unfair to load them up if they don't have the experience or manpower," said board chairman Tad Decker.

The background checks the board will require of firms, executives and employees could number about 30,000, and are viewed as crucial to screening out organized crime.

Most will be limited to criminal background checks of low-level employees of the slots operators, casino suppliers and vendors. About one-fifth will involve in-depth background checks of executives and managers or forensic accounting investigations of corporate applicants.

The more extensive background checks could cost thousands of dollars, to be paid by the applicants. Those applications can be huge, filling boxes the size of file drawers and requiring investigators to travel abroad. Thus far, the board has received 10 applications from slot-machine manufacturers.

Other gambling states employ a range of bureaucratic models.

In New Jersey, an independent division underneath the state attorney general handles all the background checks, then presents its findings to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.

The Michigan Gaming Control Board has an internal bureau that handles its background investigations. The board's executive director, Dan Gustafson, recalled how Michigan's state police wanted, and got, the responsibility for all the background checks -- until they realized how much paperwork it involved.

"It wasn't as sexy as they thought it was going to be," Gustafson said.

In Pennsylvania, Miller conceded that the state police cannot do an entire forensic accounting investigation, but questioned whether private firms can access the kind of law enforcement intelligence that the state police can.

Board member Kenneth McCabe, the former head of the Pittsburgh FBI office, and David J. Kwait, a former FBI agent who is heading the board's bureau of investigations and enforcement, have championed contracts with private firms.

The firms, they say, have experience doing work for gambling states and federal agencies including the FBI, and are staffed by former federal agents.

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