"I'm fed up with these guys and their 'holier than thou' crap."

- Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic,

on Caesars Entertainment Corp.

Jim Whelan does not get angry often - at least not publicly. And Caesars, which operates four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos, is an unlikely target for Whelan's anger.

But he has a valid point.

Whelan was reacting to the American Gaming Association's brief filed with the N.J. Casino Control Commission and the Division of Gaming Enforcement opposing a petition for an interim casino authorization by the Rational Group, the parent of online-gambling company PokerStars.

Rational Group, based in the United Kingdom, hopes to purchase the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel and be a major player in the state's coming Internet gambling industry, which will be limited to companies that have casinos in the state.

But the gaming association's brief says PokerStars "operated as a criminal enterprise for many years" and "cannot demonstrate the good character, integrity and honesty required by New Jersey law."

Caesars and PokerStars are the two most prominent players in the battle over Internet gambling. Caesars unsuccessfully lobbied state lawmakers to insert language in the Internet gambling bill to bar PokerStars from operating in New Jersey. As an industry giant, Caesars plays a major role in the American Gaming Association - and this is the first time the AGA has ever intervened in a licensing proceeding.

To Whelan, it's all crystal clear.

"They are motivated by greed," Whelan said. "They want to keep foreign investors out. ... The gaming association is their vehicle."

Often overlooked locally, where Caesars controls so much of Atlantic City's casino industry, is the fact that the privately held company is struggling. Caesars has $24 billion in debt and hopes to spin off an online gaming company that can funnel much-needed cash back into the parent company.

So the stakes are huge for Caesars, and - if Whelan is correct - the attempt to undermine PokerStars with New Jersey regulators has an air of desperation about it. Just last month, Caesars tried to sell the Rio casino in Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker brand to PokerStars to "give us a better relationship with Caesars," according to a PokerStars spokesman quoted this week by Forbes magazine.

To be sure, Rational Group will have to answer some hard questions to get a license in New Jersey. The U.S. Justice Department had charged PokerStars with circumventing federal law prohibiting U.S. banks and credit-card companies from processing online gambling payments. In July 2012, the company reached a deal with the Justice Department, agreeing to pay $731 million in a civil settlement.

You can bet New Jersey will be looking hard at that case.

But that's a job for state regulators - who are quite capable of doing it without any help from PokerStars' chief competitor.