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Published: Saturday, 8/1/2009

Court rejects challenge to casino issue

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - A proposal for Las Vegas-style casinos in Toledo and three other cities remains alive after the Ohio Supreme Court Friday rejected an attempt to kick it from the Nov. 3 ballot.

The challenge had been mounted by Columbus area horse-racing track Scioto Downs, which stands to benefit from a separate plan recently approved by Gov. Ted Strickland and lawmakers to introduce as many as 17,500 slot machines at Ohio's seven racetracks.

The casinos in Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati would be direct competition for the racetrack slots as well as the state's estimated $933 million anticipated from the track plan for Ohio's budget over the next two years.

"The lawsuit was, in our view, nothing more than an attempt by [Scioto Downs owner] MTR Gaming to protect the millions of dollars its West Virginia casino makes off Ohioans who now have to cross state lines in order to take part in gaming," said Charlie Luken, a former Cincinnati mayor serving as chairman of the Ohio Jobs and Growth Committee pushing the ballot issue.

Scioto Downs had asked the court to order Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to decertify petitions she approved earlier this month based on the signature counts she received from county boards of elections. Ms. Brunner had certified that 452,956 signatures were valid, some 50,000 more than what was needed to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

"The secretary of state and the boards have now completed their review of the sufficiency of the petitions and have timely certified their results in accordance with the constitutional and statutory duties," wrote the court. "They had no additional duty or authority to further investigate and invalidate additional part-petitions and signatures following the expiration of the constitutional deadline."

The court noted that Ms. Brunner has launched a postcertification investigation. But it said that while the results of that investigation could lead to prosecutions, they could not be used to retroactively invalidate petitions already approved.

The primary financial backers of the casino effort are Penn National Gaming Inc., owner of Toledo's Raceway Park, and Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. If approved, Toledo's casino would be located on reclaimed industrial land on the city's riverfront abutting Rossford near I-75.

Scioto Downs had charged that some paid signature gatherers had provided false addresses, did not circulate the petitions bearing their names, or were convicted felons barred under Ohio law from being petition circulators.

Bob Griffin, MTR's president and chief executive officer, said the company was disappointed in the high court's decision and will now instead look to the fall vote.

"Our challenge was over what we believe to be a very ineffective way of bringing gambling to Ohio," he said, disputing Mr. Luken's contention that the goal was to protect MTR's Mountaineer Casino just over Ohio's eastern border.

"This was clearly to protect Scioto Downs' interest," Mr. Griffin said. "My question for Penn National is whether they are going to build casinos in Toledo and at the racetrack."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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