In 1998, the Maryland Jockey Club wanted to boost a prominent politician who supported the legalization of slot machines at racetracks. Rather than exceed the state limit on campaign donations, the racetrack owner gave $200,000 to a national campaign committee with ties to the candidate.
The strategy fizzled when the pro-slots gubernatorial candidate -- Republican Ellen S. Sauerbrey -- lost. The winner, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), refused to expand gambling in the state.
Last fall, as the issue of slots again loomed large in Maryland political campaigns, the Jockey Club used a similar tactic after reaching the legal maximum to state campaigns. This time, however, the contributions were targeted to a national committee headed by Maryland's most powerful legislator.
The owner of the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks wrote two checks totaling $200,000 to a national political action committee overseen by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), the General Assembly's biggest advocate of legalizing slot machines.
Jockey Club officials declined to comment yesterday, but Thursday's disclosure in The Washington Post about the $200,000 gift to Miller's committee underscores the influential role it has long played in Maryland politics.
Since 1999, according to state records, the Jockey Club and its employees and affiliates have contributed $42,515 directly to candidates running for the General Assembly and to state political parties.
That is only a small portion of the Jockey Club's political largess. Constrained by Maryland's campaign finance rules, which limit donations from a single or business or individual to $10,000 every four years, the company and its affiliates have given more than $500,000 to national political parties since 1998, records show.
Although there is no way to track how such contributions are used, the national parties have sent large portions of the money back to Maryland to influence elections.
That's precisely what big donors such as the Jockey Club have in mind, said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group that advocates for campaign finance reform.
"It's a shell game, because it's so difficult to follow the money," Browning said.
A recent Common Cause study found that racing and gambling interests had contributed more than $500,000 to Maryland politicians and parties since 1999, prompting the group to call for a ban on contributions from such donors. The study did not include the Jockey Club's $200,000 donation to a federal campaign committee headed by Miller.
"Organized gambling will win unless we tighten up our campaign finance laws," Browning said. "It is absolutely inevitable that we will get [slots] in Maryland unless we cut off the money."
The Jockey Club, established under state charter in 1743, bills itself as the oldest sporting organization in America. Its Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore is home to the Preakness Stakes, part of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
Although the Jockey Club has proven adept at finding ways around Maryland's campaign finance limits, on occasion it has broken the rules.
In 1996, Jockey Club part-owner Joseph A. De Francis pleaded no contest to laundering $12,000 in contributions to Glendening's first run for governor two years earlier. He was fined $1,000 and placed on probation for one year.
De Francis was accused of making the donations under false pretenses, by funneling the money through three relatives, including his 91-year-old mother in Buffalo.
De Francis declined to comment for this story. His family held a majority interest in the Jockey Club until last year, when it sold a controlling stake to Magna Entertainment Corp., a Canadian racing conglomerate. The de Francises still hold a 49 percent share in the company.
Before the sale was finalized in November, an arm of the Jockey Club gave two separate donations of $100,000 each to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, an arm of the national Democratic Party that parcels out the money to state legislative races across the country. The chairman of the DLCC is Miller, who has served in that capacity since 1996.
Miller said yesterday that he was aware of the donations but did not know how they were solicited.
"I knew they gave money, but I didn't know how much," he said.
He said the contributions were legitimate and were not earmarked for use in Maryland. "This is a professional organization," Miller said of the DLCC. "Every 'i' is dotted, every 't' is crossed."
It is difficult to determine exactly how much DLCC money came into Maryland. But an examination of the group's reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service shows that more than $150,000 was spent on political campaigns and advertising in Maryland.
Four Maryland senators, including Miller, received direct contributions totaling $19,500, records show. All are strong supporters of legalizing slot machines.
An additional $12,000 went to the Maryland Democratic Senatorial Committee and the Anne Arundel Senatorial Committee, two entities indirectly controlled by Miller.
Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. (D-Laurel) received a $4,000 donation. He said he asked Miller for money to help him retire a $25,000 campaign debt.
"I went to him and said, 'Is there anything you can do to help me?' " Giannetti said. "Then I got the check and put it right in the bank. That's all I knew about it. I didn't know where it was coming from."
Another beneficiary was Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore), a freshman senator who received $6,000. Although Brochin backs slots, he said the donation was not predicated on his support for legalized gambling.
"I support slots, but Senator Miller never, ever asked me if I supported slots," Brochin said. "We never discussed slots during the campaign. He just wanted to support a Democrat."