Casino interests quietly hedge their
By TOM BENNER ~ Patriot Ledger State House Bureau
casino industry is quietly lining up Beacon Hill’s top lobbyists
as the high-stakes debate over gambling gears up in the Legislature.
Las Vegas-based casino conglomerates Park Place Entertainment
Corp. and Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. have tapped well-connected
State House lobbyists to promote their cause.
Place Entertainment, which owns Bally’s, Caesars Palace and Hilton
casinos and brings in $4.6 billion a year, hired ML Strategies,
a Boston lobbying firm headed by former Massport chief Steve Tocco.
“We hired ML Strategies to be our eyes and ears,” Park Place Entertainment
spokesman Robert Stewart said. “We want to be prepared, if casino
gambling is approved, to evaluate the market and make a move.”
Harrah’s Entertainment, which brings in $3.7 billion a year and
owns the Harrah’s, Showboat, Rio and Harveys casinos, hired veteran
Beacon Hill lobbyist Robert White.
“Harrah’s is a company that has a reputation and success in the
business,” he said. “If Massachusetts is going to go down this path,
they want to be around to be a part of it.”
Harrah’s has also hired the Boston lobbying and public relations
firm Rasky-Baerlein Group as its local advocate.
“What we’re looking to do is to make sure people have an accurate
understanding of what gaming can and cannot do, and what forms of
gaming work best in different environments,” Larry Rasky said.
Lobbyists face a Jan. 15 deadline to report their client fees
with the Secretary of State’s office. In 2000, gambling interests
spent $688,402 on Beacon Hill lobbyist salaries and expenses. Now
that gambling has emerged as a key legislative issue again, the
industry is expected to be a lucrative source of lobbying fees as
well as campaign contributions to elected officials.
Some Massachusetts towns, including Palmer in western Massachusetts,
have been lobbying the state to allow casinos in their communities.
“As this issue has been bandied about, Palmer was the precursor
to it all,” said Dennis Murphy, a Springfield lobbyist representing
business groups in Palmer, where residents approved a casino gambling
ballot question in the late 1990s. “There’s been a longstanding
Meanwhile, the state’s four racetracks have long been lobbying
legislators for the ability to add slot machines and become “race-inos.”
Murphy argues that legislators would be shortsighted to approve
slots for the state’s racetracks without approving up to three casinos
spread out across the state.
The problem with doing just racetracks is that it doesn’t do anything
for western Massachusetts or other parts of the state where there
are none, he said.
Former state Sen. Joseph F. Timilty of Canton, now a lobbyist
representing the Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, thinks the
competing casino interests can work in partnerships.
“There’s a mutuality of interest there,” Timilty said. “If we
can get together, the commonwealth can be the beneficiary.”
Other high-powered lobbyists representing gambling interests include
former House Speaker Charles Flaherty, who represents Suffolk Downs
in East Boston.
David Nunes, a real estate developer representing the Wampanoag
Tribe of Gay Head-Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, argues that an
American Indian casino will return more to the community than a
casino run by a for-profit conglomerate.
“It’s pure economic development if it’s a Native American tribe,”
Nunes said. “A Native American tribe is not for profit, it’s for
establishing self-sufficiency for its people.”
Among the few lobby groups on Beacon Hill opposed to casino gambling
is the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, a longtime gambling opponent.
“The stakes are higher when you look at the kind of proponents
that are coming in,” said conference executive director Gerry D’Avolio.
Watchdog groups worry that casino lobbyists will have too much
influence on the legislative debate. While lobbyists are limited
to making no more than $200 campaign contributions to an individual
legislator, they can encourage colleagues and relatives to support
“It’s very difficult to control the proliferation of campaign
contributions designed to exceed the limit,” said Pam Wilmot of
Massachusetts Common Cause. “There are so many ways to get around
Sen. Robert L. Hedlund, R-Weymouth, a member of the Legislature’s
Government Regulations Committee - it’s affirmative recommendation
is crucial for gambling legislation to pass - agrees that some lobbyists
try to buy legislative loyalty.
“It creates a situation that they have access, given their ties
and background and relationship, that an individual citizen does
not have,” Hedlund said.
But Sen. Michael W. Morrissey, D-Quincy, chairman of the Government
Regulations Committee, said an independent commission, not individual
legislators, would decide what groups would receive licenses if
casino gambling were to be approved.
Morrissey said he is encouraged that so many potential casino
operators are interested in doing business in Massachusetts.
“The more competitive it is, the better it is for the commonwealth,”
Tom Benner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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