De Francis case may hurt his slot lobbying efforts Charges against him could taint legislation

July 17, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron and C. Fraser Smith | Thomas W. Waldron and C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

To many around the Maryland State House, it was clear -- legalizing slot machines was a dead issue for the 1996 General Assembly from the outset. Some legislative leaders were saying so and the governor basically agreed.

But Joseph A. De Francis, the racetrack owner charged last week with laundering $12,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, was undeterred.

With his well-connected team of lobbyists and the support of the Maryland Racing Commission, De Francis pushed a bill lobbyists drafted that would send the profits of thousands of slot machines cascading into his bank account.

"I don't want any amendments on my bill. I want my bill to be clean," he told associates.

Such was the confidence of this 41-year-old Stanford- and UCLA-educated lawyer who presented himself before lawmakers and power brokers with the same self-assurance that made his late father, Frank J. De Francis, a force in Annapolis.

Now, many in State House circles are wondering whether the criminal charges pending against Joe De Francis will spell the end of his aggressive lobbying days. If the taint of corruption is too pungent, observers say, slot machine legislation will have little chance when the Assembly convenes again in January.

"There's a natural reluctance by legislators to take high-profile positions when there's some sort of a cloud around the issue," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican who has helped lead opposition to casino-style gambling. "If they feel there is a political peril, they might just say, 'I can't help you on this one.' "

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli last week charged De Francis in Baltimore District Court with disguising the $12,000 in contributions by sending money to three relatives in New York and having them send the checks to Glendening's campaign in 1994. De Francis has said that he did indeed give the money to his relatives, but that he doesn't believe he violated the law.

That 1994 election was a time of political opportunity -- and risk -- for business leaders and other interest groups, who were obliged to try to pick the winner from a field of several prominent elected officials.

A lot was riding on the outcome for De Francis, the principal owner of Laurel and Pimlico racecourses, because the new governor would have a crucial role in the debate over casino-style gambling that was already heating up that year.

Early in the campaign, De Francis lined up with then-Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, a Democrat and strong racing supporter who had been a close friend of his father's -- his father ran the tracks before him.

De Francis gave $4,000 to Steinberg and helped raise thousands of dollars more from friends in the racing industry, according to campaign reports filed with the state election board.

Later, another of his father's old friends, former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, jumped into the gubernatorial race on the Republican side. Hedging his bets, De Francis began raising money for her, too, contributing $2,000.

But in the September primaries, both of De Francis' favored candidates fizzled -- with Steinberg losing badly to Glendening, and Bentley upset by Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

The night of the primary, De Francis and his State House lobbyist, Alan M. Rifkin, tried some damage control. The two dropped by Martin's West in Woodlawn to pay their "respects" to Steinberg, whose long career in state government was coming to a whimpering end.

Then, after a brief private visit with Steinberg, the two cruised down Interstate 95 to College Park -- to join in Glendening's victory celebration.

After the primary, according to sources, De Francis got a clear message from the Glendening campaign: Raise some money.

While De Francis had nearly "maxed out" -- given the maximum allowed under state law -- he was able to organize a fund-raiser about two weeks before the November election at the Silver Spring home of his racetrack partner, Martin Jacobs.

Apparently eager to raise an impressive amount for the Democratic nominee, De Francis swelled the pot by arranging the $12,000 in contributions from his grandmother, aunt and uncle in New York.

"When Parris Glendening won the primary, he was a new force to be reckoned with," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. "I'm certain that Joe wanted the event he was hosting to be a major event."

From law firm to tracks

De Francis took an unusual path to the owner's box at Pimlico and Laurel. He studied political science at Stanford University and earned both a law degree and a master's of business administration from the University of California at Los Angeles.

He was practicing law in the Washington office of the Los Angeles-based firm of Latham & Watkins, specializing in antitrust matters and merger and acquisition work, when his father died in De Francis quit the firm and took over leadership of the two tracks, with help from his sister, Karin Van Dyke.

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