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Pro-slot forces spent millions

The Baltimore Sun

Powerful interests that stand to benefit the most from Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to legalize slot-machine gambling have contributed nearly $1.25 million to state candidates and political parties since 2003, and spent $2.6 million on State House lobbying fees during the past two years, according to a Sun analysis.

Gambling supporters have poured at least $135,000 into the campaign accounts of O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, records show. Former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an avid slots supporter, received about $131,000 during the same period.

The two horse-racing tracks positioned to get slots under the plan that the House of Delegates is set to debate tomorrow - Laurel Park and Ocean Downs -led all Maryland tracks in spending on lobbying from November 2005 to April 2007, according to records filed with the state Ethics Commission.

The owner of Ocean Downs, William Rickman - through family members and companies he controls - has given almost $400,000 to Maryland political candidates and committees since 2003.

The infusion of money shows how those associated with Maryland's once-vaunted horse-racing industry and others are waging an aggressive campaign on multiple fronts to sway the slots debate in Annapolis. The General Assembly is considering a referendum that could allow up to 15,000 slots machines at five locations, including two racetracks.

"It is an example of how money moves legislation," said Bobbie Walton, a board member of Common Cause-Maryland, a watchdog group. "Money elects people who share a common viewpoint with the givers."

'Nature of the game'

Contributors, and public officials who received the money, cast the donations as part of a legal and long-standing system that lets people give financial support to candidates who share their views.

"That's the nature of the game," said Lou Raffetto, Jr., president of the Maryland Jockey Club, who himself has given $8,000 to four candidates and a political action committee since 2003. "We all make contributions, myself included, to support the individuals who support our causes."

Campaign cash flowed to state candidates from current and former owners of the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks, horse farms and breeding outfits, political action committees, developers with land interests near track sites, out-of-state gambling interests and even bingo machine makers, a Sun review of thousands of campaign finance records revealed.

Among the officeholders to receive such contributions is O'Malley. The Democrat and former Baltimore mayor, who once called legalized gambling "a morally bankrupt" way to fund education, has supported a limited slots program at racetracks since 2002.

Yet this fall, he advocated a more expansive slots plan in what he said was a needed compromise to help close a projected $1.7 billion budget gap, save Maryland's flagging horse-racing industry and preserve open space.

Contributions from pro-gambling interests to O'Malley have exceeded $120,000 since 2005, an amount that far surpasses the amount received by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. The longtime slots supporter has taken in $33,400 from the pro-gambling interests since 2003.

O'Malley and Brown received about $86,000 from track owners and operators, including $56,000 from Rickman and his other companies; $20,000 from those affiliated with the Maryland Jockey Club, operator of Laurel Park and Pimlico; $5,500 from those with a stake in the Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County; and $4,600 from the developers of a Baltimore site that city officials are eyeing as a slots location.

Site selection mystery

O'Malley has largely avoided discussion of how he and advisers picked the five locations where slot machines would be allowed: one each in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and Baltimore City.

The bill he offered, backers say, was designed to avoid lining the pockets of a small cadre of gambling interests. And several independent analysts have said O'Malley's bill did just that, though the bids won't be competitive for some licenses. The bill also sets aside $140 million a year for helping breeders, enhancing purses and making track improvements.

At least $800,000 flowed into candidate campaign coffers from track operators since 2003, The Sun's analysis found. And nearly half of that came from interests controlled by Rickman, a Montgomery County developer who owns Ocean Downs racetrack, one of the five sites singled out in the Senate-approved slots referendum bill.

"In my view, there is an undeniable connection between the history of political donations and the allocation of sites, and the potential allocation of sites," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who has proposed outlawing contributions from gambling interests.

Officials with the Maryland Jockey Club and affiliated entities gave $267,000, records show. About $30,000 of that amount came from former Jockey Club CEO Joseph A. De Francis and family members; he stands to benefit should slots go to Laurel Park. Horse farmers, breeders and leaders of associations that represent them donated $252,000.

Rickman, his family and his companies provided by far the largest sum, giving $382,000 - more than four times as much in the period as any other pro-slots or pro-gambling interest.

State campaign finance law allows single donors or corporations to give only $4,000 during an election cycle to individual candidates. But Rickman reached this goal, now as in the past, using a variety of limited liability corporations that operate out of his Rockville offices in a practice that watchdog group Common Cause has said gives donors too much influence.

Rickman, who did not respond to several requests for comment for this article, defended his contributions at a Nov. 2 hearing, telling a skeptical Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus that he gives money to "a lot of candidates.

"I believe I've given money to you, too, Senator, but I don't think it's done me much good," Rickman said.

Last week, Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, even singled out Rickman's donations to O'Malley and Brown and asked one of the governor's aides in a hearing whether it gave "an appearance of being bought."

Although Ehrlich opposed slots in or near Ocean City, O'Malley included the Ocean Downs site despite strong opposition from local officials and residents. Ehrlich received political contributions from Rickman, but one-third of what O'Malley got.

Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's spokesman, said campaign dollars didn't influence the governor's slots proposal.

"We are talking about a fraction of the total amount raised by both candidates in the last gubernatorial election," he said. "Beyond that, Governor O'Malley ran on a limited number of slots at the tracks to preserve horse-racing and racing-related agriculture. In that respect, it's not surprising that he received campaign contributions from people who have an interest in this issue."

O'Malley is supporting placing slots facilities at non-track locations because he "always has known that he would have to compromise on this issue and others during the special session," Abbruzzese said.

"Ultimately, it will be decided by the voters," he added.

The controversy over what influence money has in the slots debate is not limited to campaign contributions.

Pro-gambling interests spent about $2.6 million on lobbying fees from November 2005 to April 2007, records show.

The total includes $546,668 spent by the Laurel Racing Association, $315,000 by Allegany LLC-Ocean Downs, $276,440 by Rosecroft, and $169,111 by the Maryland Jockey Club-Pimlico.

Slots at 5 locations

Under O'Malley's plan, the racetracks positioned to get slots are Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County and Ocean Downs in Worcester County. The plan would not put slots at Baltimore's Pimlico, the other track operated by the Maryland Jockey Club and owned by Magna Entertainment Corp.

Gregory Proctor, a lobbyist representing Rosecroft, said he didn't see a correlation between spending on lobbyists and the track that stands to profit from the slots plan.

"That's a snapshot of a much, much larger picture. And you've had companies that have spent money on lobbying in past years that aren't even playing this time," he said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and slots foe, said the money that pro-slots interests have spent to influence the political process is one of the reasons he favors a voter referendum.

"If the voters have an opportunity to look at it, and it looks like the process doesn't unjustly enrich anyone, then I think it has a decent chance," Busch said. "If it doesn't, it could look like a rigged game, if you will, [and] I think it has less chance in the voters' eyes."

Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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