PA Attorney General Quietly Halts Enforcement Vs Unlicensed Slot Machines

Posted on June 3, 2020

The administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf made a lot of posturing noise about going after unlicensed slots devices back in January when a temporary injunction issued in 2018 was lifted.

But that’s now quietly on hold, PlayPennsylvania has learned.

AG halted enforcement of unlicensed slots without public statement

Enforcement actions quietly got shelved some time ago without public acknowledgmentuntil pressed this week by PlayPennsylvania.

The injunction had previously staved off enforcement and seizures of Pace-O-Matic‘s “Pennsylvania Skills” games.

Now the lack of enforcement is instead a conscious choice by the state’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

A final court opinion or legislative action needed for clarification

Similar games not made by the Pace-O-Matic company (POM), are also out there throughout the state from about five other makers. While not covered by the injunction, enforcement against the other unlicensed machines had also slowed as a result.

POM insists their machines differ from the competition and require skill, a position one court ruling has supported, and another has not.

That divided court record leaves a murky gray and the matter awaits a final resolution in court or through legislative action.

Mike Barley, a spokesman for POM, issued a statement:

“Pennsylvania Skill, powered by Pace-O-Matic, has a legally adjudicated game of skill and will fight to protect our legal standing in the Commonwealth Court. With that being said, we agree with the Office of Attorney General that there are companies providing illegal gambling devices, masquerading as skill devices, operating in the Commonwealth.”

All of the controversial machines are similar to casino slots but are unlicensed, unregulated, and untaxed. They flourish in bars, restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations, and fraternal meeting halls.

They number around 15,000 to 20,000 in the Keystone State, while the heavily taxed and regulated casino slots in PA only number 24,000.

Wolf delivered a chest-thumping pro-enforcement statement

A statement from Wolf in January said of the machines:

“The administration believes Pennsylvania must take a hardline on illegal gambling, including so-called ‘games of skill’ and other slot machines. These machines are illegal, unregulated and put senior programs at risk by siphoning revenue from the Lottery.”

The state made a splash for a short time in late January through February with seizures of 71 machines and their money, summarized in a State Police press release. However, that hasn’t been the case recently despite concerns about the machines harboring COVID-19 germs.

Even state regulators, which had taken a hands-off approach, deemed the skill games illegal in late February, citing a raft of reasons why the games are illegal.

Wolf included the unlicensed slots in his COVID-19 statement

Indeed, when Wolf shut down casinos in March he made a public health emergency declaration that in-part stated:

“Operation of these machines during the current health emergency encourages people to congregate unnecessarily and is prohibited under the Governor’s order of March 19, 2020. Any business operating, servicing or otherwise maintaining a “Game of Skill” is subject to enforcement which may include an order to suspend otherwise authorized in-person operations.

Pennsylvanians Against Illegal Gambling (PAIG), said in March the PA Department of Health and county health departments should order businesses to shut them down.

Enforcement money, but no enforcement

That never happened even after the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) gave grants earlier this year of more than $750,000.

The public money went to law enforcement in Bensalem Township, home to Parx Casino, Delaware County, home to Harrah’s Casino, and Lackawanna County and local police in that county, which is near Mohegan Sun Pocono. None of the district attorneys in those counties responded to requests for comment this week.

The news site PennLive recently reported: “A survey of various police and industry representatives this week found no signs that any convenience store-based operators have been cited under the health emergency orders.”

Shapiro ordered no enforcement until a court resolution

The silent months of inaction by the state are by design.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office has confirmed they have halted enforcement:

“The question of whether ‘skill games’ are legal is currently pending before the Commonwealth Court and OAG is representing State Police and the Department of Revenue in that litigation. While we continue to maintain that “skill games” are illegal, as an agency, we have elected not to actively seize machines until the Commonwealth Court provides guidance on the issue.”

Shapiro’s post is independent of Wolf. Both are Democrats. Wolf endorsed Shapiro for the elected AG’s post.

As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Shapiro is responsible for the legal support of the State Police and agencies such as Revenue, which collects tax money on legal slots.

PAIG spokesman incredulous at AG’s stance

Peter Shelly, a spokesman for PAIG, the group opposing the unlicensed machines, learned of the AG’s policy from PlayPennsylvania and was dumbfounded.

“My first response is: Why did the AG oppose the preliminary injunction if they were just going to impose one on themselves — after they already won the issue?”

He added:

“The fact is that the Commonwealth Court has already rejected POM’s request for an injunction to block PSP from confiscating these illegal machines. The Court said that the state is free to take these machines while this case is being litigated. The OAG won that ruling. That was their case.

“Now, they’re changing course and ignoring this illegal activity? That makes absolutely no sense. Governor Wolf and the PA Gaming Control Board are right: it’s time for these machines to go.”

Kevin Shelly Avatar
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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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