Gaming groups' gifts are revealed

$500,000 in donations in 4 years, study shows

Ehrlich received the most in Md.

Delegate introducing bill to stop such contributions

February 04, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Horse-racing, casino and other gambling interests gave more than $500,000 to Maryland political campaigns over the past four years, according to a report released yesterday.

The study by Common Cause/Maryland shows that companies, organizations and individuals involved in gambling gave generously to Democrats and Republicans. The report identified Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as the largest single beneficiary of the industry's largess, with $121,260 in contributions.

The state's leading gambling-connected contributor, according to the report, was William Rickman Jr., co-owner of the Ocean Downs and Delaware Park racetracks. Common Cause identified $183,565 in contributions made by Rickman family members, businesses and partnerships.

Common Cause, a government watchdog organization, released the report at a news conference called to promote a bill that would prohibit campaign contributions from companies and individuals licensed to operate gambling sites in Maryland, as well as their key employees.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, the bill's sponsor, said that without such legislation, "Maryland is going to be submerged by a tidal wave of contributions from organized gambling."

Anticipating First Amendment objections, the Montgomery County Democrat said state supreme courts in Louisiana and New Jersey have upheld similar legislation aimed at curbing the political influence of gambling interests.

"Historically, there has been a connection between organized gambling and political corruption," Simmons said. He released a letter from state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. endorsing the bill and asserting that it would pass constitutional muster.

Simmons and co-sponsor Del. Nancy J. King, also a Montgomery Democrat, said they oppose Ehrlich's bill to allow slots at Maryland racetracks. However, they insisted that their legislation would provide an essential safeguard if it does pass.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said his organization takes the same view.

Browning said executives with an interest in gambling had used a variety of loopholes to expand their giving power beyond the state's legal limits. Under normal circumstances, Maryland law limits individuals and companies to donating $4,000 to a single campaign and $10,000 to all state-regulated campaign funds during a four-year election cycle.

Rickman, who is seeking to build a racetrack with slots in Allegany County, aggressively used two provisions of Maryland law that Browning called loopholes.

One provision allows multiple partnerships controlled by a single individual to contribute $10,000 over the course of four years if the ownership structure differs slightly for each partnership. Another allows unlimited contributions to political parties for "administrative" purposes.

Rickman interests gave the Republican and Democratic parties $68,000 for their administrative accounts.

Businesses and partnerships Rickman controls gave $158,100, while family members donated $25,465. Rickman could not be reached for comment.

Other large gambling-related donors include the Maryland Jockey Club -- the former majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks -- and its employees. They gave a total of at least $42,515, according to the report. The Thoroughbred Breeders & Horsemen's Political Action Committee donated $41,900.

In calculating the total of $503,341 in gambling contributions, Common Cause used a broad definition that included the owners of horse farms.

Despite her opposition to slots at Maryland racetracks, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend collected $66,915 from gambling interests. Many of her contributors also gave to Ehrlich.

"You have a lot of people covering their bets and giving to both political parties," Browning said.

Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said the governor's campaign fund "followed the letter of the law to a `T' " and did not discriminate among donors.

"Those contributions do not and will not buy influence when it comes to proposed legislation by the governor," she said.

While Ehrlich raised an impressive sum from gambling interests, their contributions made up a little more than 1 percent of the almost $11 million he raised during the four-year cycle. Since the governor released his proposed slots legislation, horse-racing interests have expressed dismay at the share of slots proceeds he wants to give them

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the governor is interested in the Simmons legislation.

"The governor understands that slots and the gaming industry as a whole is a very complex issue," Fawell said. "This bill is one of many components that will be considered by the governor in the coming weeks."

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