Keno not sure bet, lawmaker says Bill abolishing game expected in 1993

Curran is questioned about contract

December 16, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

A state Senate leader put the State Lottery Agency on notice yesterday that keno is not a sure bet -- yet another sign that lawmakers are souring on the gambling proposal.

Legislators probably will introduce a bill in their 1993 session to abolish the controversial lottery game, which is set to begin Jan. 4, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas P. O'Reilly.

"The likelihood is that keno is on very slippery footing because there are too many members of the Senate who feel strongly against it," Mr. O'Reilly, a Prince George's County Democrat, said last night after his committee heard about five hours of testimony on keno.

Keno is a frenetic numbers game that features drawings every five minutes almost around the clock. The State Lottery Agency plans to introduce it in hundreds of restaurants, bars and taverns statewide in just three weeks. The General Assembly will convene a week after that.

Mr. O'Reilly said the company supplying Maryland with keno is "acting on its own peril" by going forward with the game.

Yesterday's committee hearing in Annapolis focused partly on that company, GTECH Corp. of Rhode Island, which last year won the contract to provide the state's other lottery games. The senators wanted to know why the state ignored its competitive-bidding procedures and awarded a $49 million keno contract to GTECH earlier this month.

The keno contract raised eyebrows for that reason, as well as because citizens and legislators had little say in the matter. Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced plans in September to launch keno as part of his $450 million budget-balancing plan. However, the specifics of the game and of the GTECH contract were not made public until Nov. 30 -- two days before the state Board of Public Works voted to award the contract.

Committee members fired numerous questions at state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and his assistants about their role in the decision to negotiate solely with GTECH.

Romaine N. Williams, an assistant attorney general, said she approved the decision after lottery officials told her in mid-September they did not have enough time to put the contract out for bidding and that GTECH was the only company capable of providing keno.

"They said no one else could do it," Ms. Williams said.

She said she became "disturbed and concerned" after reading a Sept. 29 letter to the Lottery Agency from another company that expressed an interest in bidding on keno.

But lottery officials assured her that the company, International Totalizator Systems America in Massachusetts, was not running a comparable keno game for a lottery anywhere else.

The Lottery Agency then sent International Totalizator a letter dated Oct. 29 saying it was not taking bids from anyone but GTECH.

International Totalizator officials could not be reached for comment last night.

Some senators questioned how the state could be sure that other companies could not provide keno -- and that GTECH gave Marylanders a fair price -- if it never solicited contract information from anyone other than GTECH.

Mr. Curran contended that his office had no reason to doubt state lottery officials, who said that only GTECH could meet Maryland's keno needs.

Maryland law permits state government to ignore competitive bidding procedures in certain conditions, such as an emergency, but some senators wondered if the need for keno's revenues really constituted an emergency.

Ms. Williams said it did because the governor ordered the game to begin in January, which did not leave enough time for soliciting prices from other companies. She said the state's budget problems necessitated swift action so that keno could begin making money for Maryland as soon as possible.

However, her boss, Mr. Curran, acknowledged under questioning yesterday that the situation did not present an emergency.

Mr. Curran nonetheless defended the legality of the no-bid contract, saying that as Maryland's top lawyer, he felt the process was appropriate.

But he said that in his role as "a candidate for office," he objected to keno because promoting gambling is not good government policy. Mr. Curran, who could run again for attorney general, is rumored to be a contender for governor in 1994.

Another likely gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, recommended yesterday that the keno contract be terminated because of the social costs of gambling. "Some experts say [keno] is one of the most addictive forms of gambling," he said.

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