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Casinos Increase Lobbying, Handouts

June 6, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ As a federal panel was wrapping up its study of the gambling industry, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt flew to Las Vegas to pick up a $250,000 check from the chairman of Mirage casinos.

Other Democrats and Republicans have made similar fund-raising trips since Congress created the gambling commission in 1996. Many have taken behind-the-scenes tours of casinos on Las Vegas’ famed Strip, chatting with blackjack dealers, learning how the security staff ferrets out cheaters, or watching how the industry trains its workers.

When it comes to influencing legislation, the casinos are not leaving anything to chance.

They have pursued a double strategy of on-location lobbying and campaign cash in hopes of solidifying support against some recommendations approved by the federal commission that studied the impact of gambling.

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission issues its recommendations to Congress, the president, Indian tribes and governors on June 18. Among the recommendations it has approved: a moratorium on new lotteries and casinos, and legislation to outlaw gambling on the Internet.

Experts say the industry has won over many friends.

``In Congress right now, it would be a struggle to get any anti-gaming thing passed,″ said William Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. ``They’ve got the bucks and the opposition doesn’t.″

Thanks in part to gambling industry supporters on the panel, most of the report’s dozens of recommendations will be aimed toward state government.

In addition to casinos, the commission studied gambling on Indian land, aboard riverboats and cruises, at pari-mutuel tracks and in state lotteries. Its recommendations include raising the betting age to 21, increasing help for addicted gamblers, and banning betting on college sports.

The casinos count on the Republican-controlled Congress to protect their interests at the federal level, even though religious conservatives are urging the party to crack down on gambling as a social ill.

Among the industry’s champions are Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose state is home to a growing casino industry, and top House Democrat Gephardt of Missouri, which allows riverboat gambling.

Lott led a group of Senate Republicans in 1997 to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where they toured an employee training center before mingling with donors.

In 1998, Gephardt and other top House Democrats toured the Mirage before joining donors over shrimp and lamb chops at a buffet.

Gephardt and the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Charles Rangel of New York, returned last month to meet with the chairman of Mirage Resorts, Steve Wynn, and accept his $250,000 contribution for House Democrats.

``We’re happy to have widespread support from individuals and groups who know how close we are to winning back the House,″ Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman John Del Cecato said.

Frank Fahrenkopf, the gambling industry’s chief lobbyist and a former Republican Party chairman, said touring casinos and mingling with their executives help educate lawmakers so they will better understand the industry.

Along the same lines, a former board chairwoman of the Nevada Hotel-Motel Association, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., has urged the casino industry to bring her fellow freshmen to Las Vegas.

The American Gaming Association’s lobbying expenses increased from $760,000 in 1997 to $860,000 in 1998. The group’s other lobbyists include former Rep. Dennis Eckert, D-Ohio, and a former White House chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein.

Since forming a political action committee in December 1995, the association has given $194,410 to federal candidates and political parties. Some of the individual casinos have given far more. Harrah’s has contributed more than $1 million since 1995. Mirage boosted its giving from $159,800 in 1995-96 to $528,846 in 1997-98.

``We have a right to be heard and represented in the halls of Congress,″ Fahrenkopf said. ``We want to be players.″

The support for casinos within the Republican Party is troubling to many religious conservatives.

``I will continue to urge my party to turn down donations from gambling interests,″ said Republican presidential hopeful Gary Bauer, who endorsed the commission’s recommendations Friday. ``I think inevitably that money corrupts politics.″

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who sponsored the legislation creating the commission, said, ``I think people who are very strongly pro-family ask, ’How can you take this money?‴

Reflecting concerns about the industry’s influence, the commission will recommend that states limit how much gambling interests can contribute to campaigns for state or local office.

As in Congress, gambling interests are well entrenched in many states to rebuff the commission’s recommendations.

In California, Indian tribes and the casino industry pumped $88 million last fall into a referendum on expanding Indian gaming.

In South Carolina, the video poker industry spent millions in 1998 on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Hodges. He defeated GOP Gov. David Beasley, who called the industry a ″cancer.″

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