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More questions about a D.C. Council member’s online gambling push

By Editorial,

WHEN D.C. COUNCIL member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) was exploring the possibility of the District legalizing online gambling in the spring of last year, it was clear he was dealing with a potentially controversial subject. A member of his staff acknowledged as much in a May 13 e-mail. And if Mr. Brown didn’t at first understand the pitfalls, his staff got a pretty clear warning from the highly respected clerk of the council’s committee on finance and revenue. “Legalizing online gambling on the fly with no public input is probably a real bad idea,” the clerk, the since-
deceased Jeff Coudriet, wrote in a May 13 e-mail. “There are people who would go bat [expletive] about this.”

The sensible advice Mr. Brown received was to introduce the measure as free-standing legislation that could be openly debated. Instead, Mr. Brown, with the approval of then-Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), waited until December and then added the gambling measure to the city’s year-end supplemental budget appropriation. There was no public hearing and no normal committee review.

Why? What was it about this issue that led the council to avoid normal public scrutiny? These and other vexing questions about the planned venture must be answered before the District becomes the first in the country to allow online poker and fantasy sports. The games would be offered to adults in the District via an intranet run by the D.C. Lottery. The finance committee, which is belatedly holding a hearing Wednesday, must ensure that the session is not just an empty exercise to quiet gambling critics but rather a real effort to determine if the city is on the right course.

Of primary interest is the unusual pedigree of this bill. New details about the events of last year have emerged from e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Marie Drissel, a longtime civic activist who opposes the gambling plans. Most striking is the exchange in May 2010 between Mr. Brown’s top aides and Mr. Coudriet. Mr. Coudriet characterized the idea as “intriguing” but cautioned, “My advice would be to hold off” and go the normal legislative route.

When we first asked Mr. Brown in April why that process was not followed, he said he was “not sure.” He later supplemented that explanation by saying he believed the city urgently needed to find revenue to preserve its social safety net during the budget crisis. Now we learn that more than six months elapsed between Mr. Coudriet’s e-mail and the council’s adoption of the gambling measure in the budget bill — plenty of time for open debate.

Mr. Brown told us Tuesday that he remembers Mr. Coudriet’s recommendation but that he “respectfully disagreed with it.” As we have noted previously, while Mr. Brown was working to get the legislation enacted, he was in the employ of a law firm that has substantial interests in the gambling arena. Over the course of the year, Mr. Brown received more than $200,000 from the firm; he has said it was for lobbying on the federal level, though he has not disclosed his clients and he was not registered as a lobbyist.

The council member says there was no conflict in his promoting the gambling bill because no company represented by his then-employer had business before the council in this area. Our question is whether the firm or its clients, if interested in doing this kind of business in other states, might have benefited by the District paving the way in legalizing this form of gambling, which states thus far have shied away from in part because of questions about its legality under federal law. A spokesman for the firm in question, Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, told us earlier that it had no involvement in Mr. Brown’s activities as a council member.

Among those set to testify Wednesday are D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan and Buddy Roogow, executive director of the D.C. Lottery. There are no outside experts to provide a dispassionate view of the technological and other issues that have prevented other states from embarking in this area.

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