Rickman in position to benefit from slots

Despite almost daily changes to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to legalize slots, one person always seems to be coming out with a piece of the slots pie: William Rickman Jr.

His continuing success is a testament to Rickman's lobbying skills and, critics say, his prodigious political donations.

First, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee sought a lucrative spot for slot machines near Ocean City, granting Rickman's Ocean Downs harness track a gambling license.

When the tourist town's leaders objected - and Senate Republicans and Ehrlich threatened to derail the bill - Ocean Downs was pulled off the table.

It was replaced overnight by the inclusion of Dorchester County in the list of jurisdictions eligible for nontrack slots facilities. Rickman owns an off-track betting parlor in Cambridge, the Dorchester seat.

But the senator who represents the county objected, and yesterday it was removed from the bill. At the same time, a new amendment was added that would offer a major payoff to Rickman.

Three slots licenses would be distributed among four Maryland racetracks - but one of the three licenses must go to a "rural racetrack." The only racetrack that qualifies as rural is the one Rickman intends to build in Allegany County.

Rickman - who did not respond to requests for comment yesterday - is a Montgomery County developer and one of the largest donors to politicians in Maryland. A study released last year by Common Cause/Maryland identified him as the state's leading gambling-connected contributor to political campaigns.

More recently, records filed with the state elections board show that Rickman, members of his family and various companies he controls have given more than $210,000 to political candidates and committees in Maryland over the past five years.

The contributions include: $56,000 to the Democratic State Central Committee of Maryland; $10,000 to the Republican State Central Committee of Maryland; $6,500 to Ehrlich; $5,500 to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller; and thousands more to a group of Senate and House leaders, including Sen. Ulysses Currie, Del. John Adams Hurson and Del. Sheila E. Hixson.

Rickman's lobbyist was co-host Wednesday of a dinner at an Annapolis restaurant for members of the Senate budget committee. The next day, the committee approved the amendment that would ensure a slots license for the Allegany track.

Senate leaders say ensuring a slots facility in Western Maryland can be an important economic development tool for the depressed area in need of jobs.

"I've kind of looked at it like the Kansas City Royals vs. the New York Yankees, and how was Rickman and this little track in Allegany County going to compete with the other big tracks?" said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat who led the floor debate on the bill.

But gambling opponents see a clear connection between Rickman's political giving and what they perceive as the Senate's efforts to ensure him a share of the slots payout. They note that other big donors and players in Maryland politics, such as the owners of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, also did well, as they are virtually assured of slots licenses, too.

"No fat cat is left behind on this bill," said W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for a coalition of anti-gambling groups. "No outsider need apply. This is an insiders' game."

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.