Casino firm hires Cambridge official Shore city attorney to lobby for Nevada company

November 01, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

A Nevada gambling company has hired the Cambridge city attorney to help persuade local officials to support plans for a casino along the Choptank River, one of the premier spots for Las Vegas-style gaming in Maryland.

Cambridge Attorney William W. "Sandy" McAllister Jr. said he submitted his resignation to the city Oct. 17, a week or so after Harveys Casino Resorts of Lake Tahoe hired him. He said that the two events were not connected, and he will leave office when the city finds a replacement or no later than mid-December.

"There's no conflict of interest," said Mr. McAllister. "I'm not representing the casino relative to anything pending before the city." Cambridge Mayor David J. Wooten Jr. agreed.

But Mr. McAllister's dual employment drew criticism from a Maryland citizens watchdog group.

"The question is whether he has stepped out of his role as city attorney and become an advocate," Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said yesterday. "It's clever of the casino interests and unfortunately fosters public cynicism about the political process."

Casino companies are eyeing Maryland as one of their most lucrative potential markets in the nation. In recent months, they have tried to enlist the support of local officials, community leaders and residents around the state to help persuade the Maryland General Assembly in its 1996 legislative session (this winter) to legalize casinos.

While hiring politically-connected people is a common practice in the casino business, one gambling industry observer said the company's action in Cambridge could backfire.

"Political access is important for any industry, particularly the gaming business," said Ramsey Poston, editor of Casinews, a gambling trade newsletter. "However, if you develop a relationship which seems to be too cozy, it could give the appearance of a back-room deal and work against you."

Gary Selesner, a senior vice president with Harveys, said his company hired Mr. McAllister to provide advice on presenting plans to a city task force studying the casino issue -- a task force that Mr. McAllister helped set up earlier this fall.

Mr. McAllister also introduced Harveys representatives to the task force -- which includes two city commissioners -- at an Oct. 18 meeting.

Mr. McAllister said he was there at the request of the task force chairman, who was unavailable, and left after the presentation.

"I don't intend to go to any further meetings," the 40-year-old lawyer said.

He said he saw no conflict between his work with the task force and Harveys, because the issue of whether casinos come to Cambridge will ultimately be decided by the Maryland General Assembly and city voters.

"My only role has been to advise the city on the creation of a task force charged with evaluating the economic and social impacts" of casinos, Mr. McAllister said.

"We have not been hired to undertake any legal representation that was in conflict with any existing client relationship," he added, referring to his firm, Miles and Stockbridge.

Mr. McAllister also provided advice to Harveys on how to approach Sailwinds Park, a nonprofit corporation that holds a lease on a 7.1-acre state-owned parcel on the Cambridge waterfront where Harveys would like to build.

"Since Sandy knows many of the people in the community, his advice on what to present and how to present it was helpful and appreciated," Mr. Selesner said.

Mr. Selesner said that Harveys and Sailwinds have signed a letter of intent to build a "destination resort" on the property, including a casino, marina, hotel and water-front park.

The land, however, is owned by the Maryland Port Authority, and any development would presumably require the agency's approval.

Mr. Selesner said he thought Mr. McAllister had avoided the appearance of a conflict of interest by submitting his resignation as city attorney.

Mayor Wooten, who appointed the local casino task force, agreed.

"I don't think that's any of my concern," Mayor Wooten said of Mr. McAllister's new client. "He's made it known he's leaving. It will be a non-issue."

Mr. McAllister said that the timing of his resignation and employment with Harveys was coincidental.

He said he took the city attorney's job, which pays his firm about $60,000 annually, at the mayor's request after the previous city attorney died several years ago.

Mr. McAllister said he had decided months ago to resign because he did not have enough time to devote to the position.

In its quest to secure land along the Choptank River, Harveys has also obtained an option earlier this year to buy a 3-acre parcel where a ship repair yard, Yacht Maintenance, is located. Mr. McAllister represents Yacht Maintenance.

That, said Mr. McAllister, was how he came to know the casino company.

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