Lobbying money talks in Assembly Millions spent trying to sway decisions in Md. legislature

June 10, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron and Marina Sarris | Thomas W. Waldron and Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

In one of the biggest spending sprees the State House has ever seen, Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke shelled out nearly $400,000 to persuade the General Assembly to approve his new stadium in Prince George's County this year.

Cooke's investment paid off handsomely when his lobbyists secured approval and $72 million in government funds for the project.

The Redskins' outlay accounted for only a fraction of the spending on lobbyists during a six-month period that included this year's 90-day legislative session.

Hundreds of entities, from the powerful state medical society to financially strapped nonprofit advocacy groups, spent millions of dollars trying to influence legislators, according to reports filed recently with the State Ethics Commission.

While the bulk of the money was spent on fees for a small army of lobbyists, more than $125,000 was spent entertaining legislators -- with meals, parties and even a couple of movie outings to Washington, D.C.

Advocates for campaign and lobbying reform acknowledge that the intense lobbying and entertaining have become facts of life in Annapolis as businesses and others jockey to protect their interests.

"The public's concern is that the lobbyists not have undue influence in the legislative decision-making," said Deborah A. Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a self-styled government watchdog group.

The reports, which lobbyists filed with the ethics commission, cover the six months ending April 30 and provide a telling recap of some of the most contentious issues considered by the General Assembly.

The reports show, for example, that gambling interests for the second year in a row poured vast amounts of money into Annapolis seeking to win approval for casino-style wagering. The legislature postponed a decision on casino gambling, but the issue is expected to be revived next year.

In all, gambling interests, including casino companies and racing, spent more than $757,000 during the period, the reports show.

Although casino companies outspent it, the state racing industry held its own. It hired 19 lobbyists -- including nine former legislators -- and pumped more than $300,000 into its unsuccessful effort to win approval for slot machines at racetracks while fending off gambling competitors.

Altogether, gambling interests spent more than $2.1 million in the capital in the past 18 months.

On another issue, the two largest U.S. lottery contractors, who were vying for Maryland's lucrative lottery contract, together spent more than $100,000 lobbying state officials.

The winner, Atlanta-based Automated Wagering International Inc., hired five lobbyists and spent $87,600. The state in December awarded AWI a $53 million, five-year contract to supply lottery computers and games. The losing bidder, incumbent GTECH Corp. of Rhode Island, spent a relatively modest $37,800 on lobbying.

Meanwhile, International Follies Inc., a Georgia-based company that wants to bring an upscale stripper club to Baltimore, hired two lobbyists and spent almost $70,000 on unsuccessful efforts to legalize nude dancing in the city.

Orioles owner and lawyer Peter G. Angelos spent about $123,000 on lobbying -- money that helped win more judges for the overworked Baltimore Circuit Court. The judges are needed in part, Angelos argued, to help unclog some of the thousands of asbestos-related cases he is handling.

Angelos failed, though, on his main goal of making Maryland's statute on punitive damages more plaintiff-friendly.

On the stadium issue, the Greater Baltimore Committee -- which led the charge for a $200 million football stadium at Camden Yards -- spent only $16,000. Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, whose team will play in the new stadium, spent nothing, according to the reports.

In the past 2 1/2 years, the Redskins have spent nearly $1.2 million on lobbying fees, according to reports filed with the state.

In an interview, Redskins owner Cooke had little to say about the money he spent in Annapolis, but he expressed satisfaction with the work of his chief lobbyist, Gerard E. Evans -- who alone billed the team $327,000. "The man is truthful and hard-working," Cooke said. "He's a Trojan."

Evans, a gregarious fixture in the capital, continued his recent reign as the city's highest-earning lobbyist. He billed his 37 clients $751,875 during the six months.

The after-hours socializing in Annapolis slowed a bit during the most recent session, thanks to an ethics law that took effect last fall.

Lobbyists now must reveal the names of anyone who received a gift -- including food, drinks and sports tickets -- worth at least $15. The law closed loopholes that had allowed lobbyists to spend more than $700,000 a year on legislators and barely name anyone.

Fearful that their free meals would become campaign fodder in the next election, a growing number of legislators stayed home or paid their own way when dining with lobbyists last winter.

Lobbyists continued to offer expensive receptions and dinners for all legislators or entire committees, because lawmakers may attend those events without fear of disclosure.

For example, P.I.E. Mutual Insurance Co., a medical malpractice firm in Cleveland, spent $4,800 on a March 13 party at Pusser's Landing Restaurant for the 33 members of two key committees.

"Fewer and fewer legislators and lobbyists are doing the normal dinner circuit, the one-on-ones," said state-senator-turned-lobbyist American Joe Miedusiewski.

Some legislators were treated to a trip to Washington for a private viewing of the thriller "Executive Decision," courtesy of the Movie Picture Association of America, which spent $2,713 on two such excursions in March.

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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