Firms Tied to Horse Track Owners Help O'Malley Retire Debt

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Companies with ties to two Maryland racetrack owners gave at least $80,000 to Gov. Martin O'Malley's campaign two months after his election, a measure of how much the horse racing industry is betting on the new governor to deliver slot machine gambling.

O'Malley (D), who was raising money to pay off a half-million-dollar campaign debt at the time, has called for placing a limited number of slot machines at tracks but said he will not press the issue during his first legislative session. Aides said the post-election giving would have no effect on his position.

On Jan. 8 and 9, companies affiliated with a single track owner, Potomac developer William Rickman, and his family gave more than $48,000 to O'Malley's campaign account and an account run jointly by O'Malley and running mate Anthony G. Brown, according to finance report details that became public this week.

Rickman, who owns the Ocean Downs track on the Eastern Shore, said last night that he does not expect the donations to have a substantial effect on the long-running debate in Annapolis over whether to legalize slots at horse tracks and other locations.

"I'm not looking for any favoritism whatsoever," Rickman said. "I'm looking for a fair slots bill to come out that maybe I have a chance to participate in."

The reports also show $32,000 from the Maryland Jockey Club, a horsemen's association controlled by Joseph A. DeFrancis, and three other entities with ties to DeFrancis that listed the same post office box. DeFrancis, who owns shares of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County, could not be reached for comment last night.

Maryland campaign finance law limits individuals and corporations to contributing $4,000 to a candidate during an election cycle. But the law does not always prohibit multiple companies affiliated with the same individual from each contributing the $4,000 maximum. And the law can make it difficult to ascertain who controls corporations chartered as limited liability companies.

Candidates have increasingly found ways to maximize the amount they can receive from related entities. During the race against then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), O'Malley and Brown raised money for separate accounts and a third, joint account. Donors were free to contribute to all three accounts as long as they did not exceed a $10,000 limit on overall giving.

The governor's office referred calls yesterday to O'Malley's campaign finance director, Melissa Koenigsberg, who played down the significance of the post-election giving by racetrack owners.

The reports included several thousand dollars in other contributions from pro-slots interests. The total amount was not readily available last night.

Koenigsberg said O'Malley had raised about $17 million for his campaign, "a small percentage of which came from supporters of the horse racing industry." She said O'Malley has been consistent in his views that slot machine gambling should be legalized to help save the horse industry.

"I'm not sure what else you can read into it," Koenigsberg said.

O'Malley finished the campaign with a debt of $500,000, which he easily erased in the two months after the election. In that time, he and Brown raised close to $1.7 million in the three accounts.

Ehrlich made legalization of slot machine gambling a priority during his first three years, but legislative efforts ended in a stalemate, with resistance mostly coming from the House of Delegates.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said last night that he does not believe racing industry contributions to O'Malley will alter the debate.

Gambling interests were strong supporters of Ehrlich after his 2002 campaign but began to hedge their bets as O'Malley maintained a lead in 2006 polls. Ehrlich became publicly critical of slots proponents, who he said were "playing both sides."

Rickman said his family's interests extend well beyond slots and include biotechnology interests and real estate. "We're in many businesses . . . and we try to keep the lines of dialogue open," he said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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