Gambling interests spending millions to influence Md.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Louisiana and New Jersey, casino owners and gambling industry representatives are barred from donating money to political campaigns. At least eight other states also restrict donations from the industry.

But in Maryland, where state legislators brag of the strictest ethics regulations in the nation, gambling businesses face no special restrictions as they invest millions in the political process to expand their operations with slot machines at racetracks and possibly casinos at tourist sites.

The result is that their money is flowing into the state at an unprecedented rate, and the accompanying scrutiny is causing headaches for some politicians.

In recent weeks, the fund-raising practices of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports allowing slot machines in Maryland, have sparked a federal inquiry.

And questions are being raised about the propriety of fund-raising events held by Montgomery County contractor William Rickman Sr. for key lawmakers.

Rickman and his son, William Rickman Jr., have racetrack casino operations in Delaware and want to open slots operations and a racetrack in Maryland.

Gambling interests have spent more than $2.5 million lobbying to bring slots and casino-style gambling to Maryland, state records show. And they have spread around hundreds of thousands of dollars more in the form of political campaign contributions.

Some legislators say that cascade of cash is eroding public confidence and will make it impossible for the General Assembly to have unfettered debate in the coming months about whether to allow casino-style gambling in Maryland and, if so, how best to do it.

"It puts a cloud over the process," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who opposes expanded gambling and promises to accept no money from the industry.

Maryland has seen such clouds before.

In 1977, Gov. Marvin Mandel was convicted of mail fraud and racketeering in a case involving investments by friends in a racetrack; he was forced from office. The conviction was overturned on a technicality, but not before Mandel served 19 months in prison.

Nineteen years later, in 1996, track owner Joseph A. De Francis pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge and paid a $1,000 fine for making illegal contributions to the campaign of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

As lawmakers and advocates seek to avoid similar scandals, the experiences of other states offer lessons.

At least 10 states have imposed restrictions on campaign contributions from gambling industry sources, said I. Nelson Rose, a law professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., and a specialist in gambling law.

"There are precedents that say you can put restrictions on gambling that you can put on almost no other legal business," Rose said. "It comes under the state's police powers to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens."

Louisiana and New Jersey ban gambling industry contributions outright, including any money from key executives and - in Louisiana's case - certain suppliers. Those bans have withstood legal challenges to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It was a concern that casinos not dominate the political process," said Daniel J. Henehgan, a spokesman for the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, speaking of regulations enacted there in the 1970s.

Donations from other regulated industries are also banned in the Garden State, including banking, cable television, insurance and public utilities.

A less-sweeping ban was proposed in Maryland this year by Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat. His bill, aimed at preventing those who seek state gambling licenses from contributing to campaigns in Maryland, never received a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee.

"I don't believe a lot of the legislators appreciate yet that gambling is not just another interest group," Simmons said.

He said he will reintroduce his bill next year, adding that the feeding frenzy for gambling dollars will worsen unless something is done.

Prospect uncertain

The prospect of such a ban is uncertain. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. doesn't support it, and many leading lawmakers are regular recipients of money from gambling interests.

"It doesn't make sense to single out a single industry at the expense of others," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director.

Miller, under scrutiny for a $200,000 donation made by a De Francis-controlled entity to a national political group run by the senator, said he would "consider the concept" of a ban on gambling donations.

"I really would like to see what the proposal is and look at what is happening in other states," Miller said.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said his group backed the Simmons legislation this year and will do so again. "I bet both sides would agree that all the money is making it impossible to debate the [slots] issue on its merits," he said.

Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, said a broader ban on all corporate contributions is warranted.

"I think we should ban all contributions and have publicly funded campaigns like they do in Maine and Arizona," he said.

Hurson benefited from a recent $250-a-ticket fund-raising event held by the elder Rickman days after the delegate wrote legislative leaders with his ideas for legalizing slot machine gambling in Maryland. The Rickmans stand to benefit if Hurson's proposal is adopted.

Hurson said the Rickman fund-raiser didn't influence him and that his position on allowing slots is unchanged since the end of the Assembly session. "I will not vote for a slots bill if it isn't coupled with a very significant tax increase that can solve the fiscal problems of the state," he said.

Rickman also plans to hold a September fund-raising event for Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The committee is holding hearings on whether Maryland should allow slot machine gambling.

The Montgomery County Democrat did not return telephone calls yesterday, but an anti-gambling activist questioned whether the delegate could be objective. "How can you be if you're letting a gambling person hold a fund-raiser for you?" said Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairman of NoCasiNo Maryland.

Broad or narrow, bans on gambling contributions don't erase the industry's influence. States that have such restrictions say that gambling groups still wield plenty of political muscle.

"Anybody who thinks they are going to allow gambling into a state and that it is not going to control the politics just doesn't know the history of gambling in this country," said C.B. Forgotston, a New Orleans lawyer and critic of legalized gambling.

"The key is they have more money than any other business. They make huge profits, and they have a lot at stake in the political process."

Power of money, votes

Even if they can't give money to candidates, Forgotston said, gambling interests can mobilize their employees as a potent lobbying force and can encourage them to campaign for the election of favored candidates.

Others say they see no reason to treat gambling money any differently from political contributions of other groups.

"I don't really see where gambling money is all that different from banking money, trial lawyer money, fill-in-the-blank interest group," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College.

Smith said money has influenced politics since the earliest days of American government and that its influence is probably less now than in the past because of disclosure laws and access to electronic public records.

Busch, who is credited with derailing Ehrlich's slots plan this year, said he will screen his contributions to ensure that he gets no money from gambling or racetrack interests.

"I would encourage others to do that," Busch said. "Even the best-intended legislators will have a difficult time if issues arise about the contributions. ... They are going to be highly scrutinized by the press, by their constituents and by their colleagues."

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and opponent of expanding gambling in Maryland, said the problem is broader than the influence to be gained through campaign contributions.

"It's a step in the right direction but the money will find other outlets," Franchot said of the idea of banning gambling industry contributions. "It just isn't going to cure the problem."

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