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Slots foes seize on comments

The Baltimore Sun

For years, gambling opponents have warned that legalizing slot machines at horse tracks would give the gaming industry a toehold in Maryland and rapidly lead to casinos around the state.

Supporters of slots have dismissed the assertion, saying they wanted slots only to make the racetracks more competitive with other states that permit the devices.

But transcripts of secret, tape-recorded conversations with former Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell Sr. -- a champion of slots -- appear to confirm the worst fears of slots opponents.

Bromwell was recorded bragging about how slots would start at tracks, spread to off-track betting parlors and move to such places as downtown Baltimore and Owings Mills. He also said he expected a piece of all the action.

Bromwell was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee when an undercover FBI agent recorded the conversations in November 2001. At the time, Bromwell's committee was charged by the Senate president with overseeing gambling legislation. The transcripts are being presented as evidence by the U.S. attorney's office in its case against Bromwell for federal racketeering conspiracy charges.

Slots opponents are seizing on the comments to bolster their case against legalizing slots, which is expected to resurface in the General Assembly next year.

"If you get the [expletive] slot machines, you can build a casino," Bromwell was recorded as saying in November 2001. "There's going to be five OTBs [off-track betting parlors] in Maryland ... they're going to be all over the place. ... We'll do Baltimore County. We'll do [expletive] Owings Mills. We'll do Cambridge."

The comments were recorded during a 2001 dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Baltimore with an undercover FBI agent posing as a Georgia financier. The recordings also capture Bromwell saying, "[I]f we get slots at the track, there's got to be a push to also put slots at these OTBs."

"That's where the big bucks are -- you know, every slot machine is worth $100,000 a year," he was recorded as saying.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he believes the Bromwell comments will add ammunition to the anti-slots cause.

"It's a revealing look at the preparation the owners of the racetracks and OTBs had for their venture into the expansion of gambling," said Busch, whose chamber has routinely rejected slots proposals pushed by a supportive Senate led by President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

Miller said he had not seen Bromwell's comments in the transcripts and dismissed fears of slots proliferation. He said state oversight of slots would prevent them from spreading.

"I prefer that they be located only at the racetracks," Miller said. "We don't want [slots in] neighborhoods, we don't want [them in] any restaurants. We want it at a destination where people have been gambling for hundreds of years."

Miller and supporters of slots proposals claim the devices would generate as much as $800 million a year for a state government facing a projected $1.4 billion budget deficit. The devices would also help the racing industry remain competitive by offering purses rivaling those in surrounding states with slots.

Aaron Meisner, the former head of StopSlots Maryland, said Bromwell's comments prove what his group has been telling the Senate for years -- that "this has been a race to the bottom."

Meisner said Bromwell's comments illustrate how "destructive and corrosive" slots can be to "good government."

Bromwell is recorded in the transcripts as calling himself a "whore" on the "Senate side" for Joseph A. De Francis, who was then the Maryland Jockey Club's Chief Executive Officer. Magna Entertainment Corp., of Canada, and the Jockey Club own and operate Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks.

De Francis declined to comment, but he was quoted in The Washington Post as saying: "I can tell you that he never said anything to me that even remotely approximated that. ... It sounds to me like the guy was sort of exaggerating and bragging to his buddies as guys tend to do."

Bromwell, who resigned from the Senate in May 2002 to lead the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, is recorded as acknowledging that slots at OTBs were not guaranteed.

"We're not assured that if it [slots]comes to the track it's going to go to the OTB. But ... I'm the committee that controls it. I'm very pro slots at the track," he said.

Meisner said the transcripts help explain why, in his opinion, slots opponents have not gotten a fair hearing from the state Senate.

"The transcripts help us by making what we already knew plain to the rest of Maryland," Meisner said. "There is no such thing as a limited number of slots at racetracks. Should you get a limited number of slots, all that is in the standpoint of the national gambling industry is the first drop of blood in the water."

He and others point to West Virginia and Pennsylvania as examples where slots began as primarily racetrack proposals but have since turned into sprawling gambling measures.

West Virginia allows slot machines at four racetracks and a limited number of similar machines are permitted in establishments with liquor licenses. The state's lawmakers passed a measure recently that would permit table games such as poker pending the approval of voters in the four counties where the racetracks operate. Pennsylvania this year started its plan to roll out 61,000 slot machines -- at racetracks, slots casinos and two resorts.

Delaware slot machines have been contained to its three racetracks. Attempts to expand into riverfront casinos in Wilmington failed last year.

Gerard E. Evans, lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said it was "hysteria" to try to sully slots supporters with the six-year-old words of a "senator who is not even here anymore."

"We can't even get the bill up for a vote," Evans said.

Evans said Gov. Martin O'Malley has made his slots position very clear: a limited number at racetracks only for the purpose of saving jobs in the state's horse racing industry.

"And he's going to be around for a long time," Evans said.

He added that the industry would be happy with a proposal that would make slots legislation a constitutional amendment requiring a three-fifths vote in the House and Senate and voter approval. That way, if the General Assembly did want to expand slots, it would have to get the backing of voters.

"We'll take whatever we can get," Evans said. "We're going to be cut down to a part-time industry" without slots.

Comptroller Peter Franchot said Maryland cannot afford to let slots gain entry at racetracks. He said the lottery was also supposed to be limited.

"Now you need a scorecard to keep them [lottery games] straight," Franchot said. "Slots, like cancer, inevitably spread once they infect the host body."

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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