The provocative lobbying company that joined Democratic gambling opponents this week with the promise of bringing lawmakers "to their knees" with reams of anti-slots faxes had previously told state Republicans of its plans and said it would work for the other side, for the right price.
"I would consider it basically blackmail," said state Republican Party Executive Director Eric Sutton.
State Republican Party officials said they left a mid-January meeting with the company Laptoplobbyist.com with the message that the organization was seeking $100,000 to forgo a deal with slots opponents that could imperil one of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top priorities.
"They showed us their plan for an anti-slots campaign and threatened retaliation, saying if we didn't buy into their scheme, they would help the other side launch their own campaign," Sutton said.
Laptoplobbyist.com president and founder Carter Clews acknowledged yesterday that he and three other company members met with Sutton and Republican Party Chairman John Kane in Annapolis on Jan. 19.
He said the group offered its services to generate an "issues discussion" in favor of slots and showed them the anti-slots campaign they were preparing to unveil in Maryland.
But Clews, a longtime Republican, rejected the charge that he was trying to blackmail the party. He said he is a friend of Ehrlich and of the governor's finance chairman, Richard E. Hug, and wanted to give the party a chance to hire him to prevent damaging the governor.
Kane, the party chairman, called the lobbying group "incredibly hypocritical" and said its motives tarnishes the anti-slots effort.
"Weeks ago, they are in our office wanting $100,000 to do a pro-slots program," Kane said, adding that they talked about how pictures on the group's Web site would be altered to change the message from opposition to supporting new revenue for public schools.
"They were going to take the pictures of the prostitutes out and put a picture of schoolchildren in," Kane said.
Laptoplobbyist.com bills itself as "America's first and foremost online conservative community," and is involved in efforts that include an "F-word campaign" aimed at the Federal Communications Commission and lobbying to block the morning-after pill.
In Maryland, the group hopes to make money by sending e-mail to 1.6 million residents and asking them to send faxes - at a charge of $10 - to every member of the General Assembly, Ehrlich and Kane. Once the group recoups expenses, profits would be split among a coalition of anti-slots groups.
Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of the group StopSlotsMaryland, said he was not aware until told by a reporter that the company had talked with the Republican Party.
"There are far more serious ethical questions to be asked about what's going on on the pro-slots side of the argument," he said.
That's where Hug, also a member of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, has been soliciting money for a pro-slots advertising campaign, and leading Democrats are calling his dual roles ethically dubious.
Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.