VIRGINIA BEACH, JULY 16 -- Del. J.W. (Billy) O'Brien Jr., Virginia's most visible advocate of state-sponsored gambling, announced today he will abandon that campaign after criticism of his attempt to extract sizable fees from lottery equipment vendors in exchange for his promotional efforts.
"I am doing this because my income and personal involvement have become the media focus" of the state's upcoming lottery referendum, O'Brien told reporters at a news conference here.
In a one-page statement, O'Brien, a Democratic member of the House of Delegates from this ocean resort city, said his decision was "in the best interest of the passage of the lottery." He then defended his recent request to be paid $185 per day by a group of lottery equipment makers and promptly left the hotel where the news conference was held, declining to answer questions.
O'Brien's emotional withdrawal from a lottery crusade he launched shortly after his election to the House in 1973 comes on the heels of a public relations disaster he caused this week when he said he needed the fees from lottery firms to make ends meet. He is on a leave of absence from his job as an adult education teacher in the city of Chesapeake, Va.
Lottery opponents promptly seized on O'Brien's remarks, saying they were an indication that lottery companies intended to "buy" their way into the state before the November referendum. At the same time, several equipment makers were left aghast by O'Brien's ill-timed request.
"We applaud . . . his stepping out of this controversy and putting the lottery ahead of his personal interests," said C. Gray Bethea Jr., the vice president and general counsel of Scientific Games Inc., the Atlanta-based lottery equipment giant that will contribute money to pro-lottery forces in Virginia.
Bethea said his firm, the world's largest supplier of "instant" lottery tickets, has learned that lottery referendums fail when campaigns promoting them lack "integrity."
"If a legislator who sponsors a bill in the Virginia legislature then turns around and as a private citizen solicits money to be the public proponent of that, there are are problems with that approach," Bethea said. "Now that Billy -- I should say Del. O'Brien -- has recognized that, I applaud him."
Jeff Gregson, the executive director of a group of Virginia corporate executives opposed to a lottery, said O'Brien's decision "will not make any difference in the way we conduct our campaign."
If anything, some of Gregson's allies said they would have preferred that O'Brien continue to stump for the lottery. Although O'Brien was an enthusiastic campaigner for legalized gambling, many on both sides of the issue believed that the lanky former high school coach was not the lottery's most inspiring advocate.
Minutes before his news conference this morning, O'Brien was told -- by his school employers, according to one associate -- to rewrite his terse statement. The first version had O'Brien merely "stepping back" from the campaign and promising to help with the "coaching" of "a lottery team" so that "pro-lottery fans can be assured of a voice."
The prose was struck from the statement. Instead, O'Brien noted only that he remained committed to the lottery ideal.
"Unfortunately," he added, "the merits of the lottery itself were being ignored."