There Are Already Keno Winners (and Losers)

BARRY RASCOVAR

December 27, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Before we ring out the old year, there's still time to return once again to that hot state political topic of the last month: keno.

This controversy has already generated winners and losers. Whatever New Year resolutions emerge could be determined by the state and federal courts and the United States attorney for Maryland.

The biggest loser from the keno contretemps has been Attorney General J. Joseph Curran. He has come off looking like a hypocrite -- he's both for keno and against it, depending on which hat he's wearing. For someone already off and running for governor, this is a deadly stance to take. In an age of cynicism, the one thing voters despise is a two-faced politician.

Mr. Curran was humbled by the Senate Finance Committee when he testified. His attempts to explain his department's superficial inquiry before approving keno were woefully lame. Twice he contradicted his assistant attorney general, who had initially given the go-ahead for the electronic video gaming system.

He has said repeatedly the keno game is A-OK from a legal perspective. But now Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Theodore R. Eschenburg Jr. is examining if any procurement or lottery laws have been violated in implementing the game so quickly. For instance, Mr. Curran approved the emergency, "sole source," $49-million non-bid contract to GTECH -- though it now turns out there was no emergency and GTECH isn't the sole source for this technology.

At the same time, Mr. Curran belatedly wants Gov. William Donald Schaefer to suspend the keno contract because of "grave policy questions" about introducing "such an aggressive form of gambling."

Yet if Mr. Curran was so concerned, where was he when the governor first decided to launch keno? Where was Mr. Curran when the Board of Public Works voted on this "aggressive form of gambling"? Why didn't he voice his "grave policy questions" when he appeared before the Senate Finance Committee?

Joining Mr. Curran in the keno losers box -- for the moment, at least -- is Governor Schaefer. He has taken another public belly-flop. Perception is all-important in politics, and in this case, keno has been perceived in a bad light by the public. Mr. Schaefer's aides never warned him of the potential pitfalls in launching the keno game with no public debate or effort to build support in the General Assembly.

If the legislature or the courts put an end to keno, the governor will be a double-loser: The public will still blame him for bad judgment and he will also have to find another way to raise the $100 million a year he claims keno would generate (though a more realistic number is probably less than half of that). Mr. Schaefer is a great governor in prosperous times, but he's a Gloomy Gus when revenues start evaporating.

A third loser is Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell. The governor can't understand why his loyal friend and political ally would go to court to stop keno. Clearly, Mr. Powell was caught in a bind: The potential damage this day-and-night gambling could do to Ocean City's family image is enormous. The threat is so severe the mayor went against his good friend, the governor.

But Mr. Powell had to know this would anger the governor, who has threatened to get even by cutting funds for the Ocean City Convention Center. There may be other forms of gubernatorial retribution, too.

On the winner's side of the keno gamble stand state Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and two gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg and Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening. All of them spoke up against the rush to expand gambling in Maryland and read the public's mood accurately.

Mr. O'Reilly proved a relentless questioner in probing the haphazard nature of the keno contract during the one and only legislative hearing. When pressure was applied to him, and to Mr. Miller, to cancel the hearing, the two men refused to budge. The Senate leadership has taken a strong stand against the hurry-up effort to start keno and the governor's attempt to pull an end-run on the General Assembly.

As for Mr. Steinberg and Mr. Glendening, they both sensed keno wouldn't be received well by a skeptical public. They pounced on the issue, criticizing the governor for balancing his budget on the backs of the poor who play these games so heavily. Sure, it was political grandstanding, but they both won points that will help them as their campaigns for governor take shape.

Eight days from now, keno begins. On Jan. 13, the legislature convenes and efforts to stop the game commence. Still later in January, a circuit court judge could rule on an injunction against keno. And meanwhile, the U.S. attorney's probe of lottery contract awards moves relentlessly forward. The list of winners and losers could change dramatically in the New Year.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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