Veteran lobbyist for track owner joins Ehrlich to help push slots

Ex-legislator Weisengoff will work during session

January 21, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose proposal to legalize slot machines failed last year in part because of criticism that it would "unjustly enrich" the state's racetrack owners, has hired a longtime lobbyist for one of those owners to help push a gambling bill this year.

Paul E. Weisengoff, a former Baltimore legislator and lobbyist for Maryland racetrack executive Joseph A. De Francis Jr., said Ehrlich approached him "a couple of weeks ago" about joining the legislative-affairs staff to promote the governor's legislative agenda, including slots.

"The governor needed another person to make sure legislators were getting the kind of attention from the governor's office that they need," Weisengoff said. He said that he started Monday and will be paid $28,000 for the three months the legislature is in session.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat and slots opponent, said the appointment is troubling. "I think highly of Paul, but I think poorly of [Ehrlich's] decision to basically appropriate a private lobbyist to try to advance the governor's agenda," Simmons said. "He has failed to recognize the line between private advocacy and the public interest."

Weisengoff said that he sees no conflict in moving from lobbying for De Francis, an executive and part owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, to lobbying for the Ehrlich administration. He described himself as "very knowledgeable about the racetrack industry." He said he expects to share that expertise with legislators and the administration as it prepares its slots legislation.

Ehrlich has not submitted a slots bill, but most observers say they expect it to include a mix of perhaps four racetracks and two nontrack sites. House Speaker Michael E. Busch criticized Ehrlich's slots bill last year, saying it would "unjustly enrich" racetrack owners because it restricted slots to tracks.

Weisengoff was a figure in the mid-1970s public-corruption trial that was the outgrowth of a racetrack scandal that led to the conviction of then-Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Weisengoff served as point man for Mandel forces in restoring favorable amendments to a 1972 racetrack bill that illegally enriched Mandel's close friends, according to news accounts of his role. Weisengoff was not accused of wrongdoing in the case.

Mandel was convicted of mail fraud and racketeering in 1977. The conviction was overturned on a technicality in 1987.

Weisengoff also was embroiled in a racetrack-related issue in the 1980s. He hand-delivered a $1,000 campaign contribution from racing interests to a lawmaker before a vote on changing racing regulations. The check was returned a few days later.

Weisengoff, 71, served in the General Assembly from 1967 to 1994. He has longtime close ties to the De Francis family and the state's horse-racing industry and was a backer of tax cuts for racing and other pro-racing items that came before the General Assembly.

He was a registered lobbyist for the Maryland Jockey Club and Laurel Racing Association -- owners of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park -- from 1996 until last April.

Weisengoff said that he was chairman of a legislative committee on horse racing for more than 15 years and was "the floor leader for every racing bill that came out of the House of Delegates in those years."

Simmons and other legislators said yesterday that the appointment signals that Ehrlich intends to make a serious push to get a slots bill passed through the Assembly this year.

"Bringing in Paul Weisengoff represents to me an authentic and very serious effort to pass the bill," Simmons said.

Another slots foe, Del. Peter Franchot, also a Montgomery County Democrat, said Ehrlich still will have his work cut out for him. "It's interesting that he would hire a lobbyist for a racetrack owner, but the major problem is no one knows what's behind the door," Franchot said. "There are no details to his plan, just like last year."

Weisengoff said his duties are being determined, but that he would be lobbying for other aspects of Ehrlich's legislative agenda besides slots.

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