Gambling interests gave thousands to lawmakers

Donations given to Ehrlich, others supporting slots

January 23, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Gambling interests opened their checkbooks wide last year to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and other state leaders who supported legalizing slot machines, campaign finance reports show.

Those giving $4,000 to Ehrlich - the most allowed by state law - included casino giant Harrah's; the owners of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course; and William J. Rickman Jr., who operates Ocean Downs outside of Ocean City and holds a license to build a track in Western Maryland.

Based on a review of campaign finance reports made public late yesterday, Ehrlich took in at least $45,000 from gambling interests - including money from developers with gambling links and lobbyists whose client lists include casinos and racetracks as well as nongambling businesses.

While a sizable sum, it represents a small fraction of the $2.5 million that the governor raised last year.

Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni noted that the governor has supported the legalization of slot machine gambling at the state's racetracks for more than a decade.

"The dollars that they contributed to fund-raisers this year didn't bring them a slots bill," Massoni said. "It's their view that he is the right man for the job, and it's their right to [contribute]."

The campaign finance reports also show that Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele got $11,250 for his campaign from gambling-related sources, while Miller took in $18,500.

The estimates are based on a review of donations of $500 or more. Precise totals are difficult to gauge because lobbyists contribute on behalf of a variety of clients, not just gambling businesses. In addition, individuals and companies listed as donors are not always readily identifiable as having gambling ties.

Gambling interests were generous with Del. Sheila E. Hixson, who chaired a key legislative committee assigned to study expanded gambling last summer.

She received a total of $5,000 from three companies controlled by Rickman, a Montgomery County resident; $1,000 from Rickman's lobbyist, Denise Hill, and her husband; $2,000 from the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's and Maryland Horse Breeders associations; $500 from Pimlico and Laurel executive Joseph A. De Francis; and $1,000 from Carl D. Jones, a Prince George's County minority business owner who is seeking part ownership of a slots casino in Maryland.

"Her list of contributors reads like a who's who of gambling in Maryland," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "It's an all-star cast."

When other lobbyists and developers with gambling interests are included, her take totals $10,675 - more than one-fourth of the $39,740 that Hixson raised from all sources last year.

Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House Ways & Means Committee, is a key player in the slots debate because slots legislation will be shepherded through her committee.

The gambling-related contributions to Miller include $2,000 from Rickman's Ocean Downs; $3,000 from Indianapolis-based Centaur, Inc., which is waging a court fight to acquire Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County; $2,500 from the thoroughbred horsemen's and breeders associations; and $1,000 from Jones.

The money rolling into the state from the gambling industry shows "they've got a big and powerful team" to pursue their interests in the General Assembly this year, Browning said.

In a report last year, Common Cause/Maryland found that horse-racing, casino and other gambling interests gave more than $500,000 to Maryland political campaigns over the previous four years and that Ehrlich was the largest single beneficiary of the industry's largess, with $121,260 in contributions.

Hixson dismissed Browning's concern that gambling interests are wielding too much influence over the political process. She said the money she received was no different from that received by the chairmen of other legislative committees.

"I believe that people have the right to petition their elected officials," Hixon said.

But Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a slots opponent, said he intends to again introduce a bill that would attempt to restrict gambling contributions.

Simmons tried last year to legislatively ban gambling-industry contributions in Maryland, as has been done in some other states with gambling, including Louisiana and New Jersey.

He said he will introduce a bill this year with a new twist: It would prohibit a company that makes a contribution from being able to get a gambling license in Maryland for three years.

Simmons said that would apply to suppliers or anyone else who would need a license from the state. He said the state attorney general has issued an opinion that the bill meets constitutional requirements.

Simmons said gambling has been a "magnet for political corruption," so the restrictions are needed.

"Maryland is really at risk to have organized gambling become the most important and powerful force in state politics," he said. "If we don't act now ... they will become the master of every vote in the House and Senate in the next five years."

Assembly on SunSpot

Find out who your representatives are and how to contact them. Read their campaign finance disclosure forms.

View the governor's spending plan for fiscal 2005 and find information about other proposed legislation and hearing schedules.

Review Sun coverage of the General Assembly and contact the writers.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.