Maryland Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. said Wednesday that he would withdraw as a co-sponsor from legislation that would provide up to $1.2 million a year in operating assistance to a horse-racing track where his private employer helped build a casino.
Mathias (D-Worcester) said he was taking the step “to ease anyone’s concern” that he has a conflict of interest. He produced a 2009 letter from a legislative ethics committee saying that his employment situation did not require him to abstain from issues affecting the Ocean Downs track.
“Rather than create an unnecessary perception, I’ll ask to be amended off the bill,” Mathias said. “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
Many members of Maryland’s part-time legislature hold outside employment.
Since 2005, Mathias, a former state delegate and a former mayor of Ocean City, has been employed by Royal Plus Inc. The Worcester-based company largely focuses on disaster response, and Mathias said his work has been in that area.
The company also served as the construction manager for the Casino at Ocean Downs, the second of Maryland’s slots venues, which opened in January 2011. The venue is in Mathias’s legislative district.
Mathias said in an interview that he and officials at Royal Plus built a “Chinese wall” separating work on the casino from his work for the company. “I don’t even know how much work we did out there,” Mathias said.
His private business relationship has come under scrutiny this year, however, as lawmakers debate legislation that would continue to provide as much as $1.2 million a year in slots proceeds to Ocean Downs and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County.
A bill that passed last year provided one-time operating assistance to those two tracks from funds originally intended to boost horse-racing purses. This year’s legislation would make that arrangement permanent — and has been bitterly opposed by the impacted horsemen.
Mathias voted for last year’s legislation and signed on as a co-sponsor of this year’s bill. He said he would abstain from any further consideration of this year’s bill.
During the interview, Mathias produced a letter indicating that he had sought advice about his employment situation from the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics in 2009, when Royal Plus was considering applying to do construction work on the casino.
Mathias, who was a state delegate at the time, was told in writing by the committee chairmen that “there is no legislative, governmental or other public-policy matter relating to this issue from which you would need to abstain. Indeed, the Committee suggests that you ought to participate in any of these matters that are important to your constituents.”
The letter Mathias received also said “it would be appropriate” for him to file a supplemental disclosure statement in relation to any specific legislation that came up related to “video gaming in Worcester County.”
On Tuesday, after missing two weeks of the legislative session because of a medical problem, Mathias filed a form noting his situation in relation to the operating assistance bill.
He said he did not file such a form last year when the original bill to provide operating assistance was being debated. Asked why he did not file the form last year, Mathias said: “Frankly, I never really thought of it, to tell you the truth.”
Such forms do not necessarily prohibit lawmakers from participating in issues on which they might have a conflict. Rather, they are intended to let the public know what potential conflicts they might have.