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Michael Brown, gambling man

By Editorial,

LAST YEAR, D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) engineered passage of legislation that will make the District the first jurisdiction in the country to allow online gaming. Undisclosed at the time was the fact that Mr. Brown was employed, and paid in excess of $200,000 last year, by a law firm with significant interest in the issue. He says there was no conflict because no company represented by the firm, which he has since left, was interested in doing business in the District. In our view the legislation nonetheless might be of benefit to his then-employer. His failure to disclose the association at the time is yet another troubling example of the secrecy that has surrounded the District’s decision to legalize and promote online poker and other games.

At Mr. Brown’s initiative, an amendment to allow the D.C. Lottery to offer online gaming was slipped into the District’s supplemental budget enacted in December. If the technology works as envisioned and the federal government raises no objections, adults in the District will be able to access a geographically contained intranet to play games such as online poker and fantasy sports from their laptop computers, with additional plans for gambling “hot spots” to be set up in hotels, bars and other venues across the city. The city’s chief financial officer and its attorney general both raised questions about the legality of the measure, but there was no public hearing or committee review. Adrian M. Fenty (D), who was mayor at the time, was not consulted. There was no public debate. And to this day no explanation has been offered for why the normal process of enacting legislation wasn’t followed. “Not sure” is what Mr. Brown told us when we first wrote about it in April.

So it’s unsettling to learn that at the same time Mr. Brown was working on plans to legalize online gaming, he was in the employ of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, an international law firm with an active gaming practice. Mr. Brown said his pursuit of online gaming — which he has portrayed as a solution to the District’s pressing budget needs — was appropriate because no client represented by his firm had business before the city that would have been affected.

Lost in that argument is the possible value to Mr. Brown’s then-employer or its clients of the nation’s capital becoming the first local government to permit online gaming, potentially a highly profitable industry. In part because of uncertainty about whether federal law permits such activity, no states have authorized it. If some now follow the District’s lead, new markets could open for Edwards Angell clients, which according to the firm’s Web site include “public and private companies that provide gaming equipment, software and/or services; casino owners; lenders to gaming facility developers; and companies and individuals involved in gaming-related investigations and disputes.” Among those represented by the firm is GTech, the powerhouse of lottery vendors that had long operated the D.C. Lottery until the city awarded the business to a competitor in 2009. Edwards Angell was among the sponsors of a conference in San Francisco last month on internet gaming in which Mr. Brown was a speaker on a panel discussing “political insights” into legalizing and regulating the practice. Mr. Brown said that his conference expenses were paid by his D.C. office and that he received no honorarium.

Mr. Brown left Edwards Angell in January for what he said was “a better offer” at the Madison Group, a lobbying and consulting firm. At Edwards Angell, his title was senior public policy adviser in the government relations department, for which he says he was paid in the vicinity of $240,000 in 2010. When we asked what he did, he told us he lobbied Congress and the White House on behalf of a variety of clients whom he would not name. When we subsequently asked why we could not find any lobbying disclosure forms filed with the House of Representatives for him in 2010, he said lobbying is a loose term that includes “information gathering” and “strategy.” Mr. Brown disclosed his 2010 earnings in the annual filing of outside income that the Office of Campaign Finance required to be filed by May 15; rules don’t require disclosure of the source of income, but when we asked Mr. Brown named Edwards Angell.

In our discussions with Mr. Brown, he stressed his care in keeping his private duties separate from his public responsibilities. Initially he told us that he had not consulted with any D.C. officials about the ethics of sponsoring the gaming legislation but had cleared the activity internally with Edwards Angell. After we called the firm, a spokesman gave us this statement: “With respect to Michael Brown’s activities as a member of the DC Council, we maintained a strict boundary between the firm’s professional endeavors and Mr. Brown’s activities — as is the case with all of our professionals’ outside activities. Firm management was thus unaware in 2010 of Mr. Brown’s intent to sponsor legislation legalizing online gaming in the District.” Mr. Brown called us back and said that, after consulting with his former colleagues at Edwards Angell, he realized he had “misspoken” on that question.

Even before we knew of Mr. Brown’s connections to a firm with interests in online gaming, we believed he and other council members had erred in promoting an untried and controversial measure with hardly any public scrutiny. The latest disclosure provides further reason for the D.C. Council to return to this issue with a seriousness that was absent the first time around. We believe the appropriate officials also should examine the propriety of Mr. Brown’s actions in this case.

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