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Electronic bingo backed by strong lobbying push

Sun reporter

Electronic gambling machines - devices that resemble slots - have been proliferating in rural Maryland counties recently, in part because of a concerted lobbying effort by their manufacturer.

Officials in one municipality, afraid that they could be subject to a lawsuit for refusing to allow the machines, revised their gambling statutes late last year to protect themselves from litigation, according to testimony before a legislative committee yesterday.

Among the most aggressive interests involved in the campaign is Frank Moran & Sons, an Arbutus-based company represented by lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano.

Bereano has been contacting gambling offices and state's attorneys in counties all over Maryland and making the case that his client's machines are legal and should be allowed.

His success in Southern Maryland helped prompt a proposal to ban the machines, which state senators considered yesterday.

The move to ban the devices is supported by top lawmakers who worry that the bingo and electronic "tip jar" machines would diminish the market for the slots parlors that voters will consider legalizing in November.

In a shift, legislators now say they don't think they can outlaw the "for amusement only" slots that proliferate in Baltimore bars and restaurants, which are a different class of machines.

"We received many inquiries, and people flew in from across the country requesting meetings," Jim Hovis, director of the Washington County Gaming Office, said in an interview after he testified in Annapolis. "We never received an official request to place machines because from the very start, I told them they were wasting their time."

He said numerous gambling companies have sought to expand in Washington County in recent months and that all were rejected because of the questionable legality of the machines.

Hovis testified at the hearing that Washington County passed regulations in October to prohibit the machines that Frank Moran & Sons and other companies wanted to bring to Western Maryland after hearing from Allegany County officials who said they had been threatened with legal action.

Messages left with two Allegany County officials yesterday evening were not returned.

Letter to AlleganyBereano, who said it was not his client that threatened legal action, sent a letter to Allegany County State's Attorney Michael O. Twigg last year saying that he was "flabbergasted" by Twigg's refusal to meet with him to discuss the legality of machines that Frank Moran & Sons wanted to place in that county.

In the letter, which was published by the Cumberland Times-News, he described letters he had obtained from state's attorneys in St. Mary's, Prince George's, Carroll, Calvert, Caroline, Somerset, Talbot, Garrett and Dorchester counties, as well as a visit his client made to show a machine to the Carroll County state's attorney's office.

The state's attorney in St. Mary's County issued a legal opinion in July that "a pull-tab dispensing machine does not fall within the definition of a slot machine," meaning that it was allowed.

Bereano said at yesterday's hearing that Frank Moran & Sons has 80 such machines in the county.

In an interview later, Bereano said his efforts on behalf of his client arise from a desire to obey the law, to politely ask legal officials across the state whether they consider the machines to be legal.

"We don't come in in the middle of the night," he said.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hearing room was packed yesterday. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Comptroller Peter Franchot and a host of state officials, business executives and lobbyists testified.

'Slot-style' machinesMiller, frequently raising his finger or slamming his hand on a table, read from a gambling company's statement last year that mentioned marketing what it described as "slot-style" machines in "emerging markets."

"Folks, this is Maryland," he said.

"This cannot go on in an ad hoc basis, county by county letting state's attorneys decide what's allowed with slot machines."

The legislation is co-sponsored by a majority of senators, so its passage in that chamber is virtually certain. Key leaders in the House of Delegates also have expressed support for the measure. House Speaker Michael E. Busch was on hand for part of the hearing.

Vicki Gruber, Miller's chief of staff, said the bill would not make illegal a separate type of machine, marked "for amusement only," that is found in many bars in Baltimore and in Baltimore County.

A 2006 Abell Foundation report found that thousands of such machines likely generate $91 million to $182 million a year. But legislative staffers pointed out that the illegal payouts made for such machines cannot be made more illegal than they are under Maryland law. Eradicating them would come down to an enforcement question, they said.

The language of the bill was crafted specifically to target machines that look like slots but mimic bingo or tip jar machines, which lawmakers say "exploit" a loophole from the court ruling that makes them legal because the outcome of the game is not determined randomly, as it is with slot machines.

Opponents of billOne by one, firefighters, veterans and directors of local clubs and nonprofit advocacy organizations testified against the bill, some saying their groups might not survive if the law passes.

Donna Bennett, executive director of Alternatives for Youth and Families Inc., a nonprofit that operates group homes and serves children with mental illnesses, said her organization will take in about $100,000 this year from 15 machines in Fred's Liquor in the Charlotte Hall community in Southern Maryland. The nonprofit pays operators nearly $300,000 a year.

Without money from the machines, she said, the organization could not "maintain our programs and keep our doors open."

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