A commission that will dole out lucrative slots licenses in Maryland will be headed by the leader of a business advocacy group chosen by Gov. Martin O'Malley after two prominent university leaders declined interest in the unpaid assignment, according to people familiar with the matter.
Donald C. Fry, a former state lawmaker from Harford County, has since 2002 led the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group that has long advocated for expanded gambling as an economic stimulus for Baltimore and the region. O'Malley announced Fry's selection late yesterday.
University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan and University of Baltimore President Robert L. Bogomolny were both approached by administration officials about leading the slots panel, but they declined, according to several people with knowledge of the decisions.
Those individuals said the university leaders were informally counseled in recent days by senior members of the university system's Board of Regents against taking the position because it is expected to be a time-consuming and potentially controversial role.
Before last month's referendum that legalized slots in Maryland, the regents unanimously endorsed the initiative, concluding that the estimated $600 million in state slots proceeds would at least indirectly help public higher education. Gambling opponents, however, suggested that board's endorsement was the result of political pressure from O'Malley, a slots supporter. The governor appoints members to the prestigious board.
Bogomolny and Regents chairman Clifford Kendall declined to comment yesterday, with the latter calling the issue "a personnel matter." Kirwan did not return calls seeking comments.
Fry, 53, of Bel Air, will head a seven-member "facility location commission" that will vet applications and select winning bidders for five slot-machine licenses that can be used to establish casinos in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester and Allegany counties. The voter-ratified amendment allows 15,000 machines across those locations.
O'Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller will each appoint two more commissioners. Those announcements could come as soon as today.
Fry said yesterday evening that he expects the commission to be heavily scrutinized because of the tempestuous years-long public debate over slots in Maryland. Gambling licenses could yield a combined $450 million yearly for casino operators by one estimate, and pro-gambling interests outspent slots opponents by millions in the fall referendum campaign.
Similar panels in other states have received heavy attention. In Pennsylvania, a businessman was indicted this year on charges that he lied to the state Gaming Control Board about his relationship with reputed mobsters and others to win a slots license for his Poconos resort.
"I certainly would anticipate that people would follow this [Maryland process] very closely," Fry said. "My commitment is to do this with the highest level that we can to abide by the law and to show that this is an open and fair process."
Fry said he would publicly disclose any relationship he or the Greater Baltimore Committee has with slots license applicants, though he said he didn't believe such relationships would necessarily prevent him from judging applications. He said he has avoided conflicts while serving as an adviser to the Baltimore Development Corporation on development issues such as the downtown arena and convention center hotel.
"I'm not going to financially benefit and the GBC isn't going to financially benefit in any way from any of those people who are interested in the slots application," Fry said. "Under any normal ethics procedures, I'm going to be disclosing any sort of relationship or connection that exists ... but I don't necessarily believe that's going to preclude me from making decisions."
At least one business group member, The Cordish Cos., has expressed interest in bidding on one or more slots licenses. Lisa Harris Jones, a lobbyist for the committee in Annapolis, also represents Penn National, a gambling operator that has contributed millions to the pro-slots campaign and intends to bid on a slots license for Cecil County.
Jones said she didn't believe her firm's work for the Greater Baltimore Committee would benefit Penn National. "We've always represented the interest of GBC as with all of our clients in an ethical manner," Jones said. "And Don Fry's appointment does not alter our ethical representation of the GBC and any other clients."
Another committee member, the law and lobbying firm of Alexander & Cleaver, represents GTECH, a leading supplier of slot machine technology.
Fry, a moderate Democrat who represented Harford and Cecil counties in the General Assembly from 1991 to 1998, said he believed slots are a "key part of our economic future in our state ... and I certainly want to be a benefit and to try to help where I can help out."
In addition to Kirwan and Bogomolny, University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III also declined to serve on the slots panel, rejecting an overture to be one of the Senate president's appointees.
Under legislation approved last year to govern the slots program, a commission member may not have a "direct or indirect" financial interest in any gambling activities, including horse racing and slots, or have an "official relationship" to a person who holds a slots license.
The law also requires that the commission membership, to be appointed by O'Malley and the General Assembly's presiding officers, reflect the geographic, racial and gender makeup of the state.
Applications for slots licenses are due in February.