Curran expected to urge dropping of keno State attorney general may join chorus of opposition

December 18, 1992|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer Staff writers John W. Frece and Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is expected to ask the governor today to delay plans to start a controversial new keno lottery, adding yet another voice to the chorus of opponents to the game.

In a separate move, the state Senate Finance Committee yesterday urged a delay of the Jan. 4 launch date for keno gambling in bars, taverns and restaurants statewide.

The State Lottery Agency is to operate keno, a numbers game that would feature drawings every five minutes almost around the clock.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said yesterday that he received news of the Finance Committee position, as well as a call from Mr. Curran. "He said he would personally intervene and ask the governor to withdraw this proposal," the Prince George's Democrat said.

Mr. Curran confirmed last night that he had talked to Mr. Miller and that he plans to talk to Gov. William Donald Schaefer. However, he declined to say what he intends to tell the governor.

Mr. Curran said he was unable to reach Mr. Schaefer yesterday and hopes to talk to him today. After that, he said, he will release a statement to the press.

It appeared likely that Mr. Curran will step up his criticism of keno as an elected official, rather than as the state's top lawyer.

"The issue is the policy and the merit and the wisdom of keno," he said. "The question is, 'Is keno good?' It's not."

He said he does not believe the state should adopt keno to balance its deficit-plagued budget. "It's not a way to conduct government."

Mr. Curran came under fire at a legislative hearing in Annapolis Tuesday for his office's legal advice on the keno contract, which was awarded Dec. 2. The office had ruled that the state could ignore its competitive bidding law and award a $49 million contract for the game by negotiating privately with one company.

At the hearing, Mr. Curran defended his decision exempting the keno contract from competitive bidding, although he admitted that an assistant erred in one of her reasons for the granting of the exemption.

The Senate Finance Committee, which questioned Mr. Curran at the Tuesday hearing, went on record yesterday as opposing the start of keno on Jan. 4.

The game should be delayed until the General Assembly can review the implications of the game, "some of which could be very detrimental to both the social and fiscal conditions of this state," the committee said in a letter to Mr. Miller.

The committee also requested the postponement so the legislature could call a public hearing in which citizens and businesses could express their views on the matter.

The letter "strongly urges" Senate officials to recommend that a joint committee of House and Senate leaders ask Mr. Schaefer to delay the launching of keno.

The letter, signed by Prince George's Democrat and Committee Chairman Thomas P. O'Reilly, cites several reasons for delaying the new game. They are:

* Keno is a "major public policy issue" that should be made by elected officials, not State Lottery Agency employees.

* Advent Technology Inc., a Catonsville-based corporation that designs, manufactures and services lottery equipment, has filed protest because the state did not allow it to bid on keno.

* The U.S. attorney is asking a federal grand jury to investigate the awarding of millions of dollars in lottery and keno contracts to GTECH Corp. during the Schaefer administration.

* The Lottery Agency and the attorney general's office had said they did not seek prices for a computerized keno system from any company other than GTECH because no one else could provide keno. However, other companies have expressed interest in the keno contract, "raising serious question as to whether it was appropriate" for the state to negotiate with GTECH only, the letter said.

In fact, one prospective bidder told The Sun that his company has experience with the game, despite assertions by the Lottery Agency to the contrary.

The firm, International Totalizator Systems America in Massachusetts, operates keno drawings on a five-minute basis in casinos in Australia, said Marcel Helou, its president.

His company also runs a keno lottery with drawings once a day in Sweden, he said, although that system was designed to handle drawings every five minutes as well.

The Maryland game "is certainly something we would like to have had the opportunity to bid on," he said.

Mr. Helou said he believes Maryland lottery officials were not looking at the matter "objectively." Mr. Helou was a vice president at Control Data Corp. when it lost the state lottery contract to GTECH last year.

On his WBAL radio show yesterday, Mr. Schaefer defended his choice of keno in September as part of a broader plan to eliminate a $450 million budget deficit.

"If they think I like gambling . . . well, I'm not crazy about it. But every one of them [legislators] had the opportunity way in September [to object.] The legislators, they can't deny they knew. I took it up with the leadership, and President Miller in particular knew about this, and now everybody is running for the trenches," Mr. Schaefer said.

Technicians already have begun installing the equipment to operate keno in 400 existing lottery outlets and 200 new locations.

Lottery officials said they could not say how many outlets had been hooked up as of yesterday.

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