PITTSBURGH (AP) — Businessmen who stand to benefit from the recent award of a harness-racing license contributed $320,000 to candidates for state offices and political action committees since 2000, according to campaign finance filings.

The racing license, which state regulators awarded in September to a site in western Pennsylvania, is particularly valuable because it automatically qualifies the holder to apply for another, more lucrative license to operate a slot-machine casino at the racetrack.

Most of the $320,000 in contributions went to top Democrats.

Gov. Ed Rendell received $96,000. The Philadelphia Future political action committee, which is controlled by longtime Rendell adviser David L. Cohen, received $115,000.

The Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission’s executive secretary, Anton Leppler, said no political pressure was applied on the panel’s decision making. A spokesman for Rendell pointed out that winners and losers for slots licenses both contributed to Rendell.

The commission awarded the license in September to Valley View Downs, which is owned by Centaur Inc. of Indianapolis. Valley View officials revealed at the time that they were buying the land for the track from the family of Carmen Shick, whose group that had been its competitor in seeking permission for a harness track.

According to documents examined by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Lawrence County developer Carmen Shick contributed $45,000 to state candidates, including $25,000 to Rendell.

The contribution was in 2004, in the second year of Rendell’s first term.

“It seemed like the thing to do at the time,” Shick said Monday night.

Centaur officials declined to comment Monday.

The racing commission initially rejected Centaur’s application for a site in Beaver County. To win the license, Centaur agreed to pay $75 million to Shick for his group’s proposed site in Lawrence County. That proposal also was originally turned down.

After a court battle which put the matter back before the Harness Racing Commission, Centaur then paid the owner of the Beaver County site, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, $57 million and hired the developer to manage construction of the track and casino on Shick’s site, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Shick, meanwhile, intends to build a water park, hotel and other businesses on about 300 acres he and his siblings will retain that surround the Valley View tract.

The political contributions came from Shick, Centaur officials and the Philadelphia based PREIT. Ultimately, Centaur expects a casino with 3,000 slot machines on the site near New Castle to bring in more than $360 million a year.

The Harness Racing Commission initially rejected applications by both Centaur and the Shick family. Centaur executive Jeffrey Smith said the rejections show that the competition was free of political influence.

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