Keno foe says he isn't playing politics

December 15, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Whatever may come of a federal grand jury's inquiry into contract awards by the Maryland Lottery, the Montgomery County legislator who urged the probe believes one of his objectives has already been met.

What Del. Leon G. Billings wanted was "to focus public attention on the corrupting influence of legalized gambling in the state of Maryland."

A $49 million keno contract, awarded recently without competitive bidding or debate by the General Assembly, Mr. Billings says, is an example of insensitivity to the perils of gambling.

"If you're going to have something as smarmy as public-sponsored gambling, you better have an open and competitive process," he says. "You would think with all of the controversy that surrounded the first contract, there would have been more discretion here."

The 56-year-old Washington lawyer, political strategist and first-term legislator says the involvement of a federal grand jury inevitably "will increase political sensitivity."

Mr. Billings says strict adherence to procedures would serve the state well as it proceeds further into the realm of gambling.

In its search for money, Mr. Billings says, Maryland government has involved itself in the regulation or operation of gambling: off-track betting, slot machines and the keno lottery game that begins Jan 4. The possibility exists for expansion into video poker and cruise-ship gambling.

In a letter to the U.S. attorney in which he urged the investigation, Mr. Billings states that Maryland is poised to become "a sewer of gambling on the East Coast." The language is pure Leon Billings, according to his friends in Annapolis, who say only partly in jest that the delegate is motivated by "truth, justice and the American way."

An ardent Democrat, Mr. Billings started as a seasoned lawmaker because of his long experience on Capitol Hill. He served as executive assistant to then-Sen. Edmund F. Muskie of Maine.

"He's an articulate speaker and a clear thinker," says Del. Gene Counihan, also a Montgomery County Democrat. "He has a very keen concern about the environment and about the political process. He'd like them both to be clean."

Yet another of Mr. Billing's Montgomery colleagues, Del. Brian Frosh, says he finds Mr. Billings "absolutely fearless" -- willing to take on controversial issues.

Mr. Frosh knew Mr. Billings in Washington when Mr. Frosh worked for then-Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. of New Jersey.

"He was Muskie's top guy on the Public Works Committee, which handled so much of the big public works projects, and the big environmental stuff like clean air and clean water legislation. He either played the most important role or one of the most important roles in these bills. A lot of people run around and say, 'I wrote this bill, I wrote that bill.' Leon really was the person who was doing that. To say he was a big shot on Capital Hill was no exaggeration."

Mr. Billings was appointed to a House of Delegates seat held by his wife, Pat Billings. who died in 1990.

"I never saw Leon prouder than when he was wearing a badge that said 'Mr. Pat Billings,' " Mr. Frosh recalls. "He was really proud of her."

Mr. Billings says he has no active political aspirations beyond serving in the House. "There is only one job in Maryland that TC would be interested in -- governor -- and I don't have a snowball's chance of getting it," Mr. Billings says.

He has recently been contacted by the Clinton-Gore camp to see if he is interested in another federal government job. "The only job I would take is ambassador to Portugal. They don't have terrorists and they have a great vino verde [green wine]. There is also a great view of the Bay of Lisbon from the ambassador's residence," he quips.

As for criticism that his call for an investigation is politically motivated, he says people should stop and think:

"This is a Democratic delegate asking a Republican U.S. attorney to investigate a contract awarded by Democratic governor who endorsed a Republican president. There are always political opportunities, designed or serendipitous, in these matters.

"But I don't expect this to propel me to the governorship or Dick Bennett into the attorney general's office," he said. [Mr. Bennett plans to run for attorney general.]

"I know this is a stretch," he says, "but once in a while, maybe the public interest takes precedence over the individual partisan objectives of the people involved."

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