Illegal Gambling Machine Drama Unfolds From Pennsylvania Senate to Small County of Shenandoah

Written By Kevin Shelly on June 9, 2021
Illegal gambling machines widespread throughout Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is awash in unlicensed illegal gambling machines. The Senate Community, Economic, and Recreational Development Committee is considering two options. Either pass legislation to outlaw the machines and close the loopholes. Or license, regulate, and tax the machines.

The committee held the first in a series of hearings on unlicensed gambling devices and skill machines on Monday. Sen. John T. Yudichak said a “series of conversations” should allow all sides to be heard. Yudichak, a former Democrat, now an Independent who caucuses with the Republican Party, began the hourlong meeting by pointing out his Northeast PA legislative district includes a convenience store in Hazelton where an illegal gambling machine appears to have been connected to a murder.

He said the lack of security in locations such as convenience stores, no player safeguards, no taxes, and the competition with taxed and regulated machines in the state’s casinos are all key issues surrounding the topic.

Another illegal gambling operation in PA charged

The PA Senate committee hearing came only a few days after charges in a quirky alleged illegal gambling operation in the Schuylkill County borough of  Shenandoah. In the tiny town of 4,800, about 20% of the population lives below the poverty line.

The locations, the Joint at 16 E. Centre St., and Rob’s Book at 35 E. Centre St. had unmarked storefronts. Charges allege that the two locations fronted illegal gambling operations which included a sportsbook, an illegal version of the Pennsylvania Lottery, and also housed illegal gambling devices, according to PA State Police Trooper Thomas Luscan of the Organized Crime Task Force.

Four men were charged. One of the men, Guy Julian, a member of the school board, owns a third property where the large illegal lottery payoffs occurred.

They all waived a hearing last week and will face charges. As of June 8, the Tri-Valley School still lists Julian on its web site as a board member. According to Yahoo News, he hadn’t given thought to stepping down from the school board.

“You can’t drive forward if you’re looking in the rear-view mirror,” said Julian.

Casino rep says remove illegal machines

Peter Shelly, of the casino industry group Pennsylvanians Against Illegal Gambling (PAIG) said law enforcement agencies must “address this crisis and remove these illegal machines.” Shelly has previously taken Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to task for not enforcing the law in regards to unlicensed gambling machines.

“We are encouraged with the enforcement actions taken by the district attorneys’ offices in Berks and Delaware counties. The machines are a menace to communities across our state.”

In February 2021, four people in Berks County were charged with running an illegal gambling operation, Windfall Amusements 777 Casino.

“I worry about individuals who can’t afford $5 thinking ‘if only I hit once”

Committee minority chair Sen. Amanda Cappelletti’s district includes Montgomery County and a portion of Delaware County where the D.A. Jack Stollsteimer estimates they are over 20,000 illegal gambling machines.

Cappelletti, an East Norriton resident, sees the illegal gambling machines where she purchases gas.

Cappelletti told PlayPennsylvania during an interview that her gravest concern is that the unregulated machines can exacerbate compulsive gambling with no safeguards in place.

“I worry about individuals struggling. I worry about individuals who can’t afford $5 thinking ‘if only I hit once” who play more often now that machines are widespread outside casinos.”

Cappelletti, a first-term Democrat, in office for six months, intends to talk with Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele about enforcement against illegal machines.

“It’s on my list,” said Cappelletti.

Cappelletti has a public health background and is deeply concerned about gambling addiction. She doesn’t believe non-casino machines can be incorporated with regulated casino gambling while providing security or help for problem gambling.

She added that “adjusting the laws” to clearly outlaw machines outside casinos should be a straightforward fix to the massive growth of illegal machines which has accompanied inaction by law enforcement.

It was “brought to her attention” that Shapiro had “unfortunately ordered his office to stop enforcement” due to confusion over the laws and one court’s legal ruling.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to speak to him,” she said of Shapiro, a likely candidate for governor in 2022. “He’s on my list.”

Several of her legislative colleagues focused on the legal confusion over Pennsylvania Skills Machines and their gray area status and copycat machines which have proliferated the state. Closing the loophole seemed a possible future legislative move.

Gaming Control Board has no authority over illegal devices

On the first day of testimony, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board lead lawyer Doug Sherman repeatedly explained the PGCB has no legal authority over machines beyond the walls of casinos, as PA law now reads.

He added the PGCB’s position is Pennsylvania does not allow gambling devices to operate outside of casinos. Sherman said if legislation expressly legalizing such devices passed, the PGCB could shoulder the task with enough time.

But he added the task would be “herculean.”

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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