Racing agency to leave Pimlico

Regulatory panel renting space at private track called conflict of interest

May 05, 2007|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,sun seporter

It will be moving day soon for the Maryland Racing Commission.

The state sent notice yesterday to the Maryland Jockey Club, the commission's landlord, that the state was terminating its cut-rate lease for office space at Pimlico Race Course.

While the lease might have been a good one for the state financially -- $1 a year with utilities included -- Gov. Martin O'Malley said it represented an apparent conflict of interest.

The Maryland Jockey Club -- part of Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian-based owners of Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Preakness Stakes -- is regulated by the commission.

The lease had been approved at a Board of Public Works meeting in the waning days of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration.

"Whatever the intent was, it clearly has the appearance of being improper and unethical," O'Malley said yesterday. "We would not allow the Public Service Commission to lease office space for $1 a year from a utility company, and similarly, a state office shouldn't be leasing space for $1 from someone they're regulating.`

Ralph S. Tyler, O'Malley's chief legal counsel, said he wasn't sure where the racing commission would be moved but that it would happen by June 1.

"It doesn't look right, and it doesn't smell right," Tyler said. "And the reason it doesn't look right or smell right is because it's not right."

The letter sent yesterday by certified mail to Lou Raffetto, jockey club president and chief operating officer, said the lease agreement would be terminated effective June 1, and that the racing agency would vacate the premises by that date. Tyler said about five people worked in the office.

According to the lease, the racing commission was to get 1,500 square feet of office space, all utilities (except telephone), cleaning services and parking in exchange for the $1 annual fee. The lease, which began Jan. 15, was to run for 10 years.

Raffetto said his company was not trying to curry favor with the state agency.

"The racing commission has historically been provided space for stewards and veterinarians at the tracks for the duration of the meets, both at Laurel and at Pimlico," Raffetto said. "This is the norm in the industry."

The offices that the racing commission was to occupy year-round, he said, was the same space used for stewards and vets during the meet.

"I don't know of any track anywhere where the state pays to be on the grounds," Raffetto said,

Racing commission executive director Michael Hopkins referred questions to the governor's office.

State officials drew a distinction between the space provided for racing oversight during meets and providing office space for the agency at a nominal cost, calling the latter circumstance problematic.

"It was a mistake but it's a mistake that can be corrected," Tyler said. "And we are correcting it."

Sun reporters Jean Marbella and Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.

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