Gambling interests pour cash into PAC

A national political committee headed by Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller raised $175,000 from gambling interests in the final six months of last year, according to records released yesterday.

The contributions amount to about $1 of every $6 raised by the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee, and they streamed into the group's campaign account even as federal investigators were pursuing a preliminary inquiry into Miller's fund raising on behalf of the group.

The federal inquiry is focused on $225,000 in contributions that the DLCC received in 2002 and early last year from horse-racing interests seeking to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland.

The earlier donations came from companies controlled by Joseph A. De Francis, co-owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, who could make millions if the General Assembly legalizes slot machines at tracks. Miller supports adding slot machines to racetracks and pushed such a bill through the Senate last year.

Although De Francis gave no money to the DLCC during the six-month period that ended Dec. 31, other gambling interests did -- including some that could make money if Maryland authorizes slots.

The most recent gambling-related contributions to the political committee include $100,000 from Reno, Nev.-based International Game Technology, the world's largest manufacturer of slot machines; $50,000 from Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment; and $25,000 from Trump Hotels Casino.

Gambling is a big business in many states, and gambling interests commonly contribute to national political committees such as the DLCC and to elected officials from both political parties.

The DLCC raised a total of $1,030,500 during the latest filing period from sources that included labor unions and corporate interests, according to reports that it filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Because last year was not an election year in Maryland, no state politician received any committee money during the latest reporting period -- unlike in 2002, when a disproportionate amount of DLCC money went to lawmakers in Maryland, a reliably Democratic state.

Miller said that fund raising is part of his responsibility as the DLCC's chairman. But he said yesterday that he did not play a direct role in soliciting money from the gambling entities listed in the latest campaign finance report.

"I haven't contacted any of these people," he said. "I wouldn't know any of these people."

Miller said he has never been contacted by the FBI about its inquiry and noted that he was cleared of wrongdoing by the state prosecutor and the legislative ethics committee.

The DLCC's report shows that it is paying legal fees that Miller is incurring in connection with the federal and state inquiries. The committee paid $20,811 to the Baltimore law firm of Miles and Stockbridge, which is representing Miller.

A representative for the DLCC said no one was available yesterday to comment on the latest campaign filing.

'Soft money'

The tax-exempt committee, which raises money for Democratic candidates running for state offices across the country, can raise unlimited amounts of "soft money" from special interests to influence elections, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group.

Critics say such committees can be used to legally skirt state and federal campaign finance restrictions.

A Center for Public Integrity study found that both major political parties and their special-interest allies have used such committees to raise large sums across the country.

The center found that 471 such committees had raised $397.8 million in the past three years, with Democratic-leaning organizations making the most use of them.

Gambling industry contributions have been a hot topic in Annapolis, where the General Assembly is again debating legislation to legalize slot machine gambling.

Miller and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. support legalizing slots, and gambling interests have weighed in with tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to try to influence the process.

History of giving

The government watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland found in a report last year that horse-racing, casino and other gambling interests gave more than $500,000 to Maryland political candidates over the previous four years.

A campaign finance report filed last month showed that Miller took in $18,500 from gambling interests last year. Tens of thousands more went to Ehrlich and to legislators who favor legalizing slots.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a slots opponent, said the $175,000 given to the DLCC is further "evidence of a gambling juggernaut" that exerts too much influence on the political process.

"It is in my mind a very perilous situation for states like Maryland that are going to be swamped by this kind of organized money," he said.

Simmons has proposed legislation that would, in effect, ban gambling interests from contributing to political candidates in Maryland. He made a similar proposal last year that died without a hearing.