Cash flow

October 31, 2006

Slot machines have been real moneymakers - for the politicians who support them. Contributions have cascaded into Annapolis in such munificent amounts that more than a few pro-slots office-holders would probably be sorry ever to see an actual bill legalizing them enacted.

Common Cause estimates that between 1999 and 2004, gambling and horse racing interests contributed $700,000 to Maryland politicians. In 2004 alone, they spent $2.3 million on lobbying fees in Annapolis.

But that's not all. There are other ways for money to be spent, and that's important in light of the news that the governor's press secretary received two subpoenas from federal prosecutors over the influence of gambling interests.

In February 2004, it was reported that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief fundraiser, Richard E. Hug, had set up a group called Citizens for Maryland's Future that was soliciting contributions from the racing business to pay for an ad campaign. The group was not required to report its expenditures; there was little evidence of its ever placing any ads.

That same month, it was reported that another group, called the Maryland Economic and Business Development Coalition, had been established to raise money to pay for the governor's hospitality tent at the Preakness. Both nonprofit organizations attracted the interest of federal prosecutors, and faded away.

That brings us to June 2004 and the subpoenas - acknowledged Saturday by the governor - that went to his press secretary, Paul E. Schurick. Mr. Ehrlich says nothing came of them, which appears to be the case, although the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore refused to confirm or deny the status of that investigation yesterday.

Again, the topic was the influence of slots interests. The confirmation that this probe reached the subpoena stage raises two interesting questions:

How connected was this to the frenzied maneuvering over Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County? The late spring of 2004 was a period of intense bargaining over the future of the troubled harness track because of the possibility that it could become a home to slots and because of a complicated simulcast deal with Magna Entertainment Corp., the state's thoroughbred operator. Local bidders and such out-of-state companies as Majestic Star and Centaur, both of Indiana, were trying to get a piece of the action - and the governor's office was very much in the thick of things.

What became of the money raised by the two nonprofits that were soliciting racing and gambling organizations? And who did it come from? Under the law, they are not required to provide a full public accounting - and they haven't. Here's another question: Have there been any other such groups seeking money from would-be players, in return for access or other favors? This sort of thing is not unheard of in American politics today; it's how Jack Abramoff, for one, carried on his business.

One of the reasons we have so strongly opposed slots is precisely because of the shady and unhealthy financial dealing that always accompanies them. Governor Ehrlich wants to see a slots bill that he can sign, as does his opponent, Martin O'Malley. The governor should begin by clearing the air about this investigation, and both candidates should forswear the contributions of gambling interests - to their campaign funds or to any advocacy group established by their friends.

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