3 senators contacted in FBI Miller probe

Democrats questioned in inquiry into Senate leader and slots debate

October 25, 2003|By Michael Dresser and Greg Garland | Michael Dresser and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

FBI agents have interviewed at least three Maryland state senators in connection with their widening inquiry into Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and the General Assembly debate over slot machines this year, the lawmakers said yesterday.

The three Democrats, when asked by The Sun, all said they had no incriminating information to offer when interviewed in recent weeks.

Two of the senators, Edward J. Kasemeyer and James E. DeGrange Sr., played pivotal roles on the committee that approved the legislation. The other, John A. Giannetti Jr., represents the district that includes Laurel Park and was an outspoken supporter of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s effort to bring slots to Maryland racetracks.

Giannetti, a freshman whose district includes parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, said one of the topics the agent asked about was the relationship between Miller and racetrack executive Joseph A. De Francis.

Giannetti said the agent also asked about contributions from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the political group headed by Miller to which De Francis contributed $225,000 in the months leading up to the slots debate. Giannetti received a $4,000 contribution from the group last year.

All three senators said agents made no effort to discourage them from disclosing the fact they had been interviewed in connection with the inquiry.

Giannetti said that after he asked the agent whether the interview had to remain a secret, "he said you can tell anybody you want." Kasemeyer, who represents Baltimore and Howard counties, said he was told the same thing when he asked.

DeGrange said that in his case, the agent volunteered that he was free to tell people about the interview. "Maybe somebody wants to keep this story alive," the Anne Arundel County lawmaker said.

Special Agent Barry Maddox, spokesman for the Baltimore FBI office, said he could not comment on whether the agents were following procedure.

Daniel M. Clements, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore, said the agents are not permitted to instruct witnesses that they have to remain silent about being interviewed. However, he said it is common for agents to request that witnesses not "fan the flames" by spreading the news.

Clements, now in private practice, said the way the agents handled the matter suggests "they don't seem to mind adding fuel to the public fire."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, who is leading the inquiry, said she could not confirm or deny whether an investigation was taking place.

Speaking generally, spokeswoman Vickie E. LeDuc said that "it certainly wouldn't be our office policy to encourage people to talk about any matters that would be under investigation."

Miller's lawyer, Dale Kelberman, declined to comment.

The three senators join several other lawmakers who previously confirmed having been interviewed regarding Miller and slots. They include House Speaker Michael E. Busch, whose opposition assured the demise of the slots bill.

The FBI has also made inquiries at the Timonium racetrack in the slots investigation.

Howard M. "Max" Mosner Jr., president and general manager of the Maryland State Fair and Agriculture Society Inc., said agents contacted him twice to ask whether he knew anything about De Francis' campaign contributions.

"They were inquiring about contributions made by Joe De Francis, about which I have absolutely no knowledge," Mosner said. "I don't know why they thought I would know anything about that."

The nonprofit state fair's horse racing in Timonium has been mentioned as a possible site for a state-owned slots casino operation.

Mosner said the FBI contacted him by telephone just before and after the annual state fair, which ends on Labor Day. He said he talked to an agent for about five minutes on each occasion.

The three senators said their interviews lasted anywhere from a half-hour to an hour and were wide-ranging in nature.

"I don't think [the agent] thought I had any insider information about anybody," Giannetti said. He said the agent came to his office two days after The Sun reported that he was holding a fund-raiser at Laurel Park, which is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. and managed by De Francis.

The event, held Wednesday, was co-sponsored by Miller and raised $50,000 for Giannetti's campaign treasury. He joked to the assembled supporters about the federal investigation, warning them to "watch what you say in the restroom."

Giannetti said yesterday that the agent told him last month that the hourlong interview was merely a "preliminary inquiry" and that there was no indication he was under suspicion.

The senator said that when the agents asked about possible trading of votes for campaign donations, he told him he had never seen such transactions occurring in Annapolis.

Giannetti said many of the questions were simply about how things work in the Senate - such as why Kasemeyer was chosen to be the floor leader for the slots bill.

Kasemeyer, who got the task as a subcommittee chairman on the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the agent he saw conducted a wide-ranging interview about the slots issue and didn't focus solely on Miller. "It wasn't all about Mike," Kasemeyer said.

DeGrange said an agent told him that law enforcement officials were simply trying to assure a "level playing field" in the scramble to receive a lucrative slots franchise.

"They were asking about any influence that might have come from any interest, including Mike," said DeGrange, who provided a critical vote for passage of the slots bill despite an anti-gambling campaign promise.

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