Miller breaks long silence on slot-machines debate

Senate president pushing to gain passage of a bill

December 19, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Ending months of silence, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has charged to the forefront of the state's gambling debate with a vigor unseen since the FBI began an inquiry into racetrack donations into a federal campaign account that he oversees.

In the past week, Miller told a reporter that it was "asinine" for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to back away from slots. He offered a four-letter review of an administration official's presentation of legislative priorities because it didn't address the state's underlying revenue problems.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, Miller has urged Ehrlich to resubmit the administration's slots-at-racetracks plan, and says he will again guide it through the Senate.

The governor responded that he would likely take the advice.

"I have no problem with it whatsoever. None," said Miller, referring to his leadership position on slots. "I intend to play a major role in any piece of legislation that passes the Senate."

Many State House observers predicted that, given his apparent troubles, Miller would be relegated to secondary status in the gambling talks. But the longest-serving Senate leader in the nation is acting more like a man with no worries than the subject of a federal inquiry.

In July, reports emerged that FBI officials were asking about $225,000 in donations made the previous year by a racing group controlled by track owner Joseph A. De Francis to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Miller is the chairman of the national group, which distributed money to several Senate races in Maryland, raising questions about whether state campaign finance limits were intentionally circumvented.

The Pimlico and Laurel race courses headed by De Francis would have benefited greatly if Ehrlich and Miller's slots plan had become law this year.

Miller has insisted that he has done nothing wrong and that he did not know of checks written by De Francis' Maryland-Virginia Racing Circuit Inc. Word of the probe, however, seemed to send the voluble Miller into hiding as investigators interviewed lobbyists, lawmakers and others through the summer.

"The fact that there's this investigation going on certainly puts a cloud over things," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said this year.

However, Miller is suddenly behaving as if skies are clear.

"I don't think he did anything illegal, so maybe reports of his hibernation were incorrect," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "He's the president of the Senate. He should be legislating. He should be leading. I don't agree with him on slots, but he should be leading."

Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat and a gambling supporter, attributes Miller's re-emergence to the natural flow of the legislative calendar. "The energy about the session has now picked up," he said. "Things have started reaching a fevered pitch."

Government watchdogs, however, say Miller's renewed support of gambling legislation illustrates the troubling nexus of money and politics, making his motivations suspect.

"Senator Miller seems to feel that he can keep hob-nobbing with gambling interests that write big checks, and it won't cast suspicions on his arguments for slots," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.

Neither Miller's attorney, Dale P. Kelberman, nor FBI officials would comment on the status of the inquiry. But the Democrat expressed confidence that he had broken no laws. Miller said he has never spoken with investigators and has no indication that the probe has moved beyond the status of inquiry, which is a preliminary stage, to a full-fledged investigation.

Miller said he is backing a slots bill because the state needs the money, and because Ehrlich promises to veto a sales or income tax increase, not because of any donations from the tracks. Miller is viewed as a longtime supporter of the racing industry.

"Not that slots are great, but they are a necessary evil ... ," he said. "Because we didn't have a special session, it should be the first bill we pass this session. It should be on the floor of the Senate in the first week."

That's music to the ears of Ehrlich, who campaigned as a slots proponent, and is hungry for a win in the General Assembly. With the governor and Senate president backing a slots plan, pressure will mount on Busch to accede to some form of gambling expansion.

"The Senate president is a very important ally in the debate over slot machines," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director. "His position is clear and strong."

Miller's confidence was on display Wednesday night, at a campaign fund-raiser at an Annapolis hotel. He said he expected to collect checks totaling $300,000. De Francis was in attendance, as was attorney and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, whose son, Louis, submitted a bid to buy the Rosecroft harness track in Prince George's County, another potential slots location.

Dispelling the notion that he might consider retirement, Miller said he would use the money to seek a ninth Senate term.

"I would like to run for re-election to the Senate," he said. But for now, Miller said he wanted to concentrate on "bringing people together" -- namely Ehrlich and Busch -- on a slots and budget fix that would be good for the state.

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