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Casino interests quietly hedge their bets

By TOM BENNER ~ Patriot Ledger State House Bureau - 12-5-02

he 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.

Park 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 interest.”

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 them.

“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 it.”

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,” he said.

Tom Benner may be reached at tbenner@ledger.com.

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