One of Maryland's top lobbyists, Ira C. Cooke, was accused in a federal civil suit of fraud, forgery and malpractice in a case that was quietly settled last spring.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, a Mississippi casino company alleged that false information provided by Cooke and his law firm, Levin and Gann, caused the company to spend more than $1 million in an abortive effort to legalize slot machines in Maryland.
Isle of Capri Casinos alleged that Cooke told a company official that the lobbyist representing Pimlico and Laurel race tracks, Alan M. Rifkin, had initialed an agreement under which the casino company and the tracks would work together to secure legislation to authorize slot machines in Cecil County.
The casino company alleged the document produced by Cooke was fraudulent.
Cooke and his firm denied the allegations. In a deposition and in other pleadings, Cooke said that the document was genuine and that Rifkin did, in fact, initial it.
The suit was settled April 7, shortly after U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis rejected a motion by Cooke and his lawyers to dismiss the case before trial. Attorneys for both sides declined to comment yesterday and would not discuss the terms of the settlement.
News of the lawsuit and settlement comes as another prominent State House lobbyist, Gerard E. Evans, faces sentencing next week after being convicted on criminal charges of defrauding a client.
Garbis' ruling in the Isle of Capri case, issued March 23, denied a motion for summary judgment by attorneys for Cooke and his law firm.
"On plaintiff's version of the facts, which must be accepted for present purposes, defendant's version of the facts is an outright fabrication," Garbis wrote. "Cooke, if plaintiff is to be believed, was anything but honest, candid and forthright."
Garbis wrote that the casino officials regarded the agreement with the tracks that Cooke produced as their ace in the hole and that they would not have proceeded with efforts in Maryland without it. Casino officials contended that they spent more than $1 million as a result of Cooke's assurances.
"With Cooke's assurance that it had the hole card it wished," Garbis wrote, "plaintiff played on, increasing its losses."
William McDaniel, the casino company's lawyer, declined to comment yesterday, saying the terms of the settlement were confidential. In the original suit, Isle of Capri, which operates gambling facilities in about a half-dozen states, had asked for $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Court records show that after the settlement, attorneys for Cooke and his law firm attempted unsuccessfully to have the files in the case sealed, contending that the allegations "might damage their business affairs and client relationships."
Cooke declined to comment yesterday, as did James W. Bartlett III, the lawyer who represented him and his law firm. The court record "speaks for itself," said Bartlett, noting that Cooke and the law firm denied all of the allegations.
Records in the case show that a handwriting expert, a former FBI agent hired by the Isle of Capri, concluded the initials "AR" on the key document were not made by Rifkin and probably were made by Cooke. The expert compared the initials on the document with writing samples Cooke provided.
"It is my opinion that it is more likely than not that the initials AR on the outline of proposals and the initials AR written by Mr. Cooke at his deposition were made by the same person," wrote Lyndal Shaneyfelt, a 25-year FBI veteran.
Rifkin denied ever initialing the agreement, court records show.
Cooke, in his deposition, testified that he took the four-page document to Rifkin's office. Cooke said that he initialed the document and that Rifkin then left the room with it. He testified that Rifkin later returned with a copy of the same document to which Rifkin's initials had been added. Cooke said he assumed that Rifkin had initialed the agreement.
Joseph A. De Francis, the majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel race courses, said yesterday that he never agreed to enter into a joint-venture proposal with Cooke's client.
He added that Cooke's proposal was one of many that were presented to him by casino companies at that time. Most talk of legalizing slot machines in Maryland ended in summer 1996, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared his opposition to such measures.
In August 1996, Cooke called a news conference to announce that a $100 million entertainment resort would be built by Isle of Capri at Interstate 96 and Route 279 if state laws were changed to allow it.
In the lawsuit, attorneys for the casino firm said they were first approached in 1995 by Cooke, who wanted to represent them in efforts to secure legislation that would authorize slot machines in Cecil County. According to the complaint, it was several years later when they learned that the agreement was not genuine.
Disclosures filed by Cooke with the State Ethics Commission show the casino company paid him more than $65,000 in lobbying fees between May 1995 and April 1997. The company also reported that Cooke spent more than $11,000 of the company's money on entertainment of legislators in that period.
The civil suit against Cooke has some echoes of the recent federal criminal mail fraud case against Evans. He was convicted in July of defrauding some of his lobbying clients by exaggerating or concocting the threat of hostile legislation in the General Assembly.
Evidence showed that Evans altered a document to fool his clients into thinking legislation aimed at them was imminent.
After the Evans case, a state task force recently urged tighter oversight of lobbyists.