State Gaming Board Imposed Far Fewer Penalties Against PA Casinos In 2020

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s first monthly meeting of 2021 adjourned Wednesday with a lack of action in an area that became notable for similar inactivity last year: fines against casinos.

The regulatory agency responsible for overseeing the 13 land-based casinos operating in the state last year, plus additional online-only operators, issued a total of four fines totaling $240,000 in 2020.

That is the lowest number of fines since 2007, when Pennsylvania’s gaming industry was in its infancy and there were far fewer operators.

Many years since then have seen more than two dozen penalties imposed as a result of legal consent agreements with casinos, reaching a high point of 47 fines totaling more than $2 million in 2017. The number of such consent agreements over the past decade also saw a dropoff in 2019, though not as sharp:

COVID could have been a key factor

There is one obvious answer for why fines would have been lower in 2020, though perhaps not in the proportion of decline that took place. That is the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic shut down brick-and-mortar casino operations for approximately one-third of the year.

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COVID’s impact slowing down the gaming board’s own operations and staff investigations also could have played a factor, noted board spokesman Doug Harbach.

“Certainly, COVID has caused issues with properly adjudicating and moving matters through the normal processes so they can come before the board for a decision,” he said in an email.

The best possible explanation for the drop in fines would be that casinos — given how their maturation process might provide better understanding of board policies and their own operational safeguards — are simply doing a better job with internal controls such as keeping out underage individuals and gamblers who are on the state’s exclusion lists.

The worst possible explanation is that the board itself is doing a lesser job of monitoring casinos for those and other problems, though there is nothing to indicate that is the case.

“I can assure that there has been no diminution of our oversight work,” Harbach said. “While our investigative and enforcement units perform their work confidentially and separate from the rest of the agency, there are likely matters in the pipeline that would come before the board in the future.”

Recent fines had nothing to do with young gamblers

The fines paid by casinos generally amount to tens of thousands of dollars at a time — a total of 329 since 2006 added up to $9.4 million and averaged $28,639 each, according to gaming board data. The fines collected are added to the state’s general fund.

The four fines imposed in 2020 were:

  • $20,000 paid by Hollywood Casino for conducting unauthorized poker tournaments.
  • $90,000 paid by Mount Airy Casino Resort for failure to properly supervise issuance of complimentary slot play.
  • $45,000 paid by Rivers Philadelphia for a similar free slot play violation.
  • $85,000 paid by MGM Resorts International for hiring a former high-level employee of the gaming board before a two-year moratorium had expired for such hires.

Interestingly, while failure to keep out underage patrons is by far the most common violation of casino regulations historically, representing 84 of the 329 total fines, there were no penalties for such problems in 2020.

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