Glendening, slot machines and tracks: Oy

July 14, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I'm as gullible as the next guy, so if Joe De Francis claims his grandmother, a lady named Sara Lascola who lives in Buffalo, N.Y., woke up one morning in 1994 and decided she'd send $4,000 to some stranger named Parris Glendening who was running for governor in the state of Maryland, who am I to argue?

We knew Glendening was shaking down everybody around here for money -- and still is, in ways that disgust even those of us who find little charm in Ellen Sauerbrey -- but who knew they were feeling his grip all the way up in upstate New York?

Also, we knew that Joe De Francis was desperate to bring slot machines to his trembly racing industry and needed the help of anyone occupying the State House. But why would he think a piddly $12,000 would buy him the possibility of untold millions -- or even $80,000, which we're now told went from De Francis, his friend Martin Jacobs and their relatives to Glendening, as well as gubernatorial candidates Ellen Sauerbrey, Melvin Steinberg and Helen Bentley?

Who knows? Casper Taylor doesn't, and everybody agrees the House speaker's a very smart fellow. When the news broke that the state prosecutor's office was charging De Francis, boss of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, with laundering $12,000 to help -- get Glendening elected, Taylor was sitting in his Cumberland home, where he muttered what passes, in the Western Maryland patois, for "Oy."

Oy, because this $12,000 translates as trouble for the future of gambling in Maryland. Oy, because the additional thousands -- as reported in this newspaper yesterday -- signal more trouble. Oy, because the day after charges were announced against De Francis, Taylor opened his newspaper and saw the stunning news that up in pipsqueak Delaware, in the first six months of slot machine operation, gamblers dropped $870.8 million into them in two measly locations.

Oy, indeed.

If Delaware could do such business, Taylor calculated, imagine what Maryland could do. Imagine, he calculated, the jobs to be created and the schools to be bankrolled. Imagine....

But he didn't have to imagine. Last year, he said, Allegany County's Chamber of Commerce hired the thinkers in Frostburg State's economics department to do a study -- an "objective analysis" -- of what gambling might mean for Western Maryland alone.

"A true resort," Taylor said, "a $100 million facility with a casino, they figured 84 percent of the revenues generated would be out-of-state money. Money we would otherwise never see around here. And jobs for a minimum of a thousand people. You know what a thousand jobs around here means? It's like 10,000 jobs for the city of Baltimore."

Can we talk about the city of Baltimore, before we get back to this De Francis business, and how it could choke off all serious gambling debate? From City Hall, Taylor was saying, he received a fax last week.

"From Mayor Schmoke," he said. "It was a copy of a Philadelphia Inquirer story, how the mayor of Philly wants full-blown casino gambling so they can spend some money on the schools."

That Schmoke is sending such a story to Taylor is a bit of news. After declaring himself opposed to gambling last year, Schmoke had a change of heart and, leaping into action with customary speed, announced he wanted slot machines for Baltimore just as the gambling debate was ending and everyone was going home.

But Joe De Francis wants the talk reopened. So does Cas Taylor. De Francis wants slots for his tracks, and Taylor, saying we should stop thinking so small, wants casinos for Baltimore and for Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

But now, Taylor was saying, this thing with De Francis and the $12,000 out of Buffalo gives all talk of gambling an undesirable odor. We will hear the phrase "money laundering." We'll hear it even more now that the figure hovers around $80,000. To this, Joe De Francis says, no, no, admitting he sent the $12,000 but claiming he wasn't trying to hide anything and had no evil intent.

And the governor, reminding everyone of the movie "Casablanca," declares he is "shocked" that such a thing could happen.

And maybe he is, though he seems not to notice his critics' shock -- and disgust -- at what seems like a continuing shakedown of contributors to his never-ending campaign.

Last week, in her own continuing campaign, Ellen Sauerbrey called this the kind of grabbing that led to De Francis' $12,000 gesture and called it "the tip of the iceberg" -- and that was before this newspaper dug up additional figures.

What Cas Taylor fears, among other things, is the effect of the De Francis charges on any gambling debate.

"It gives opponents another tool," he said. "It's a false tool, but it's a tool to demagogue on. If we're looking at things on their merits, it shouldn't do anything. But sometimes, the world I live in works on perceptions, and it could have a negative impact."

Taylor's been to Delaware and seen the money going into slots.

"A tremendous amount of Maryland money being driven over there in cars and left there," he said. "People here want to do it. They like to gamble, and they're doing it."

What Taylor wants, though, is casino gambling, which he says zTC brings "true economic growth. It's wealth coming in that otherwise won't be here. Slots at the tracks, that's probably in-state money, which is good because it helps racing but won't bring in tourists. But .... "

But his voice trails off. This De Francis business could stop everything now. Not on the merits, only on the perceptions. Cas Taylor can bring up jobs in Western Maryland, and somebody will mention De Francis. Kurt Schmoke can argue money for schools in Baltimore, and somebody else will mention that $12,000. Or the $80,000. The odds on gambling just lengthened.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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