Don't Abramoff Maryland!

Another Good Reason to Defeat Slots

by Steve Sklar
Maryland is no stranger to blatant intrusion by big gambling interests into government integrity. We need to remember why the General Assembly banned commercial slot machines back in the 1960s.
The seamy spectacle that keeps unfolding in Washington demonstrates yet again how the extraordinary sums of money put into play by the commercial gambling industry are used to subvert both the functioning of the political process and the public’s confidence in its government officials. Jack Abramoff, the well-connected lobbyist, parlayed almost $82 million from gambling clients into a bonanza of political contributions, gifts, trips and other favors to members of Congress and their staffs, and to officials in the Executive Branch. At least 210 current members of Congress received Abramoff-directed funds, many of whom took some requested action on behalf of his clients. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud, bribery and tax evasion and will be sentenced on March 29. Before then, additional developments and indictments are expected from Abramoff’s cooperation in the continuing federal investigation of Congressional recipients. Currently, Capitol Hill is immersed in a scramble to transfer Abramoff-generated contributions to deserving charities and in publicized efforts to reform campaign financing and lobbying guidelines.

Maryland is no stranger to blatant intrusion by big gambling interests into government integrity. In 1963, the General Assembly voted to phase out slot machines, which had operated for decades in four Southern Maryland counties. The Legislature acted after a grand jury report concluded that slots had created “a sordid mess," and after a gubernatorial campaign that featured allegations that only State action could address corruption between slots owners and local governments. At the urging of newly-elected Governor Millard Tawes, the General Assembly banned all commercial slot machines by 1968.

Passage of the 2004 slots legislation in neighboring Pennsylvania reveals a more contemporary experience with political intrigue and irregularities. The slots bill, authorizing 61,000 machines at 14 locations, was enacted in controversy during a July Fourth holiday midnight legislative session, without any preceding hearing or public notice. In the four years before passage, at least $5.8 million was contributed by gambling interests to political campaigns in that state. News sources report numerous former political staffers, fundraisers and other insiders have become part-owners and consultants to applicants for slot facilities or services. Current and former elected officials have also been linked to slots opportunities, most noteworthy being the indictment of the former mayor of Erie and two on-going FBI investigations of public officials in Philadelphia.

According to Common Cause Maryland, in a report to be released, organized gambling interests have continued to make large campaign contributions to a broad cross-section of State and local officeholders during 2005. Citing firms and individuals identified with the gambling industry, Common Cause calculates that at least $200,000 was spent last year, exceeding the $166,000 contributed in 2004. The latest survey now brings the total political contributions made from 1999 through 2005 by organized gambling to State and local officials to over $1.0 million. Gambling-related businesses also spent nearly $6.0 million between 2003-2005 in lobbying fees and entertainment expenses. These sums were raised by an industry even before the availability of huge profits reaped by slots operators.

Steve Sklar writes on behalf of Stop Slots Maryland.

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This story was published on March 17, 2006.