Pro-slot forces spent millions

Nearly $4 million steered toward candidates, lobbying

Sun Exclusive

General Assembly -- Special Session

November 11, 2007|By James Drew and Bradley Olson | James Drew and Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTERS

Powerful interests that stand to benefit the most from Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to legalize slot-machine gambling have contributed nearly $1.25 million to state candidates and political parties since 2003, and spent $2.6 million on State House lobbying fees during the past two years, according to a Sun analysis.

Gambling supporters have poured at least $135,000 into the campaign accounts of O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, records show. Former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an avid slots supporter, received about $131,000 during the same period.

The two horse-racing tracks positioned to get slots under the plan that the House of Delegates is set to debate tomorrow - Laurel Park and Ocean Downs -led all Maryland tracks in spending on lobbying from November 2005 to April 2007, according to records filed with the state Ethics Commission.

The owner of Ocean Downs, William Rickman - through family members and companies he controls - has given almost $400,000 to Maryland political candidates and committees since 2003.

The infusion of money shows how those associated with Maryland's once-vaunted horse-racing industry and others are waging an aggressive campaign on multiple fronts to sway the slots debate in Annapolis. The General Assembly is considering a referendum that could allow up to 15,000 slots machines at five locations, including two racetracks.

"It is an example of how money moves legislation," said Bobbie Walton, a board member of Common Cause-Maryland, a watchdog group. "Money elects people who share a common viewpoint with the givers."

`Nature of the game'

Contributors, and public officials who received the money, cast the donations as part of a legal and long-standing system that lets people give financial support to candidates who share their views.

"That's the nature of the game," said Lou Raffetto, Jr., president of the Maryland Jockey Club, who himself has given $8,000 to four candidates and a political action committee since 2003. "We all make contributions, myself included, to support the individuals who support our causes."

Campaign cash flowed to state candidates from current and former owners of the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks, horse farms and breeding outfits, political action committees, developers with land interests near track sites, out-of-state gambling interests and even bingo machine makers, a Sun review of thousands of campaign finance records revealed.

Among the officeholders to receive such contributions is O'Malley. The Democrat and former Baltimore mayor, who once called legalized gambling "a morally bankrupt" way to fund education, has supported a limited slots program at racetracks since 2002.

Yet this fall, he advocated a more expansive slots plan in what he said was a needed compromise to help close a projected $1.7 billion budget gap, save Maryland's flagging horse-racing industry and preserve open space.

Contributions from pro-gambling interests to O'Malley have exceeded $120,000 since 2005, an amount that far surpasses the amount received by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. The longtime slots supporter has taken in $33,400 from the pro-gambling interests since 2003.

O'Malley and Brown received about $86,000 from track owners and operators, including $56,000 from Rickman and his other companies; $20,000 from those affiliated with the Maryland Jockey Club, operator of Laurel Park and Pimlico; $5,500 from those with a stake in the Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County; and $4,600 from the developers of a Baltimore site that city officials are eyeing as a slots location.

Site selection mystery

O'Malley has largely avoided discussion of how he and advisers picked the five locations where slot machines would be allowed: one each in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and Baltimore City.

The bill he offered, backers say, was designed to avoid lining the pockets of a small cadre of gambling interests. And several independent analysts have said O'Malley's bill did just that, though the bids won't be competitive for some licenses. The bill also sets aside $140 million a year for helping breeders, enhancing purses and making track improvements.

At least $800,000 flowed into candidate campaign coffers from track operators since 2003, The Sun's analysis found. And nearly half of that came from interests controlled by Rickman, a Montgomery County developer who owns Ocean Downs racetrack, one of the five sites singled out in the Senate-approved slots referendum bill.

"In my view, there is an undeniable connection between the history of political donations and the allocation of sites, and the potential allocation of sites," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who has proposed outlawing contributions from gambling interests.

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