In trying to figure out their hot-and-cold relationship with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), racetrack owners might as well resort to plucking petals off a daisy: He loves me, he loves me not.
Worried about appearing too cozy with the state's horse-racing kingpins, the governor gave the cold shoulder to the group and their lobbyists in January when he was drafting the first version of his bill to legalize slot machines at racetracks. When that effort tanked, Ehrlich reversed course and wooed the track owners back into the fold, inviting them to help rewrite the proposal.
Newly released documents show that Ehrlich's tangled romance with the horse industry dates back even further.
Five weeks before he was sworn into office, Ehrlich received a Dec. 9 memo from a longtime political supporter and donor, W.J. Hindman, warning him to tread carefully in dealing with the racing industry because it was riven by infighting.
"Mistrust and the emotions of double-cross, lies, greed and duplicity run so deep and wide that the ability of the leaders to get together and to stay together seems highly unlikely," wrote Hindman, a horse breeder and owner of Rich Meadow Farm in Westminster.
Hindman, whose family donated $8,200 to Ehrlich last year, said he had promised "Bobby" that he would talk to about 20 horse breeders and owners to uncover any potential pitfalls in the drive for slots. In his letter, Hindman advised the governor-elect that there was one person in the middle of the slots debate who was trusted by virtually no one: Joseph A. De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the Pimlico and Laurel Park thoroughbred racetracks.
"Joe De Francis is at the core of the emotion and rot!" Hindman wrote. "Seems like you cut out the rot and if you can get the core, you may bring the others together."
Hindman went on to rip De Francis's longtime lobbyist, Alan Rifkin, and a top Jockey Club official, Tim Capps, urging Ehrlich to keep them out of the public eye in the debate over slots. "Some suggested that the governor appoint a czar (at least for this job), someone without the baggage," Hindman wrote. "De Francis needs to be removed along with Rifkin and Tim Capps because they will be counterproductive for this cause."
In an interview, De Francis acknowledged that bitter feelings against him are widespread within the horse-racing industry. He attributed it, in part, to his ill-fated decision to back Republican Ellen S. Sauerbrey for governor in 1998. She lost, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) made sure that the slots debate went nowhere during the rest of his term.
"A lot of it stems from the fallout from the '98 election and the decision I made to back Sauerbrey," De Francis said. "That led a lot of people in the industry to be very unhappy and point their finger at me."
A Lobbying Loophole
When the General Assembly approved tough new ethics laws two years ago, advocates vowed that lobbyists who misbehave would be barred from the State House for life. But now it appears the law contains a loophole big enough to drive a Mack truck full of shady lobbyists through.
In briefs filed in a case against Gerard E. Evans, the first person to face revocation of his license under the new law, lawyers for the state concede that Evans could have avoided the fuss and returned to lobbying if he had just waited until the law's two-year statute of limitations had run out before reapplying for a license.
Evans, who was the top-grossing lobbyist in Annapolis when he was indicted on charges of defrauding his clients of more than $400,000, was convicted in September 2000 and served nearly a year and a half in federal prison and in a D.C. halfway house.
After his release, Evans filed an application in May with the Maryland Ethics Commission to return to lobbying. The commission voted to revoke Evans's license permanently, citing the new law. Evans appealed to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, and the case is pending.
In briefs filed recently, the Ethics Commission's attorney, Stephen Sachs, concedes that had Evans "but waited to register until after Sept. 29, 2002" -- two years after his conviction became final -- "he would have been beyond the reach" of the new law.
Does that mean that if Evans had served, for example, five years in prison he would automatically get his license back? Yep, Sachs said.
What about a gambling industry lobbyist from, say, Nevada, who had been convicted of lobbying abuses back home 10 years ago? Is that guy welcome in Annapolis? Could be, Sachs said.
The law, passed in 2001 in part as a reaction to the Evans scandal, authorizes the Ethics Commission to permanently revoke the license of someone who commits a felony related to the practice of lobbying within two years of a final conviction or within two years after the commission becomes aware of the violation.
The genesis of the two-year limit "was the feeling that the ethics commission . . . ought to act in a relatively timely manner before something gets stale," said former House majority leader Donald Robertson (D-Montgomery), who chaired the commission that helped write the new law.
Robertson declined to comment further, saying "people will have to make their own judgments."
Robert Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who advises the General Assembly, said the two-year limit probably would begin running on out-of-state convictions the moment a lobbyist applies for a license in Maryland, rather than from the moment of conviction.
For locals, however, Zarnoch agreed with Sachs: Misbehaving lobbyists need only wait out the two-year time limit. But if they spend more than two years in jail, Zarnoch said, "they might not be able to get any clients anyway."