When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hired a well-connected, racetrack lobbyist this week, he bettered his chances of fulfilling a campaign promise to introduce slot gambling to the state, but critics of the move contend that he undermined another pledge: to clean up the "culture of corruption" in Annapolis.
Paul Weisengoff takes the new job cloaked in a mantle of experience as a former South Baltimore legislator and a savvy State House operator. But his move from the payroll of a racetrack executive to that of the governor has raised questions about the divide between public and private interests.
During his time in the General Assembly, Weisengoff developed a reputation as an effective legislator who knew how to push a bill through or kill unwanted legislation.
But Weisengoff, 71, has brushed against ethical fences in the past, most notably for pushing amendments in a 1972 racetrack bill that illegally enriched friends of then-Gov. Marvin Mandel. Each time, he walked away without serious allegations of wrongdoing lodged against him.
Weisengoff said he wasn't hired to make slots happen for Ehrlich, but his return Monday to the State House, where he served for 28 years before stepping into a lobbyist's shoes, troubled some Capitol insiders.
"It certainly smacks of business as usual," said Former Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Baltimore Democrat who worked alongside Weisengoff in the legislature a decade ago.
Paul E. Schurick, communications director for Ehrlich, dismissed the criticism.
"That's just unfair. This guy is just a terrific legislator," he said.
Recruiting someone with strong ties to the horse-racing industry to be the governor's point man on legislative issues that may include a revamped plan to bring slot machines to Maryland gaming venues "certainly does not have the aroma of a fresh wind," Lapides added.
For James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/ Maryland, a group that works to reform politics, the hiring raises concerns that a revolving door stands between members of special-interest groups and the governor's mansion.
"We're concerned with the culture of lobbyists and the complicity," said Browning. "It's interesting that a lobbyist that has worn the gambling hat for so long is now being asked to serve the public interest. This suggests the same clients and contacts will now have access to the governor through him, and the people writing campaign checks will have more access to the governor."
Since 1997, Weisengoff has lobbied part time for a handful of causes, but always on the payroll of racetack executive Joseph A. De Francis Jr.
His lobbyist earnings have been relatively modest, totaling just over $236,000 between 1997 and 2003, with about $136,000 derived from the Laurel Racing Association and the Maryland Jockey Club.
Not using Weisengoff to push slots through the General Assembly "would be like hiring John Glenn and saying he's not going help you with your moon launch," Browning said.
Still, Weisengoff insisted yesterday that his record is irrelevant to the job.
"I was hired not because I was a track lobbyist," he said, "but being the governor's man, I'm a hired gun. Who knows what he'll have me working on?
"My job is not slots. It may become slots, but I wasn't hired to do that," he said.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, often a critic of the Ehrlich administration, voiced concern about the governor's choice.
"Paul Weisengoff is what he is," Frosh said. As for the governor contributing to what one federal judge once called a "culture of corruption" by hiring someone tied so closely to the issue Ehrlich has been pushing, Frosh and others said they do not believe it would result in anything nefarious.
"Let's see what happens," Frosh said. "I'm not sure what he's going to do for the governor."
Former Sen. Michael Collins said Weisengoff's strength lies in predicting who would support or oppose a measure.
The governor's slots bill failed last year, and this session, Ehrlich saw several of his vetoes overturned -- a problem that usually results from not knowing whether you have support for your legislation and actions.
For that reason alone, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer called Weisengoff's appointment shrewd and overdue.
"He can tell you when you're gonna win or lose," he said.
Collins said he did not believe there were specific ethical problems with Ehrlich's choice of Weisengoff.
Weisengoff gained attention in the mid-1970s during a public-corruption trial over racetrack patronage that led to Mandel's conviction. Weisengoff was not accused of wrongdoing for ushering through favorable amendments to a 1972 racetrack bill that illegally enriched Mandel's close friends, and Mandel's conviction was overturned on a technicality in 1987. Still, even Weisengoff acknowledges people may have questions about him.
"But I can't even remember when I've done anything immoral, illegal or unethical," he said. "I think I'm doing a public service, taking a cut in salary and expenses."
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