When Maryland House leaders met behind closed doors in Annapolis this week to discuss the latest twists in the state's intractable slots debate, the man making the strongest case for a gambling initiative was Del. John A. Hurson.

The Montgomery County Democrat spoke so forcefully on behalf of legalizing slots -- and specifically in support of placing machines at Ocean Downs racetrack near Ocean City -- that his remarks have rekindled questions about his close ties to the track's owner, William M. Rickman Sr.

"He was more vocal than anyone," said Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who was at the meeting.

"People were kind of looking at each other and saying, 'Man, where did that come from?' " said another House leader, one of four who discussed Hurson's comments on the condition that they not be named. All four said they were surprised to see Hurson take the lead because his close ties to the Rickman family are so widely known.

Hurson describes his relationship with Rickman's son, William M. Rickman Jr., as a "close friendship" that predates any debate about bringing slot machines to Maryland.

Campaign finance records show that the Rickmans have supported Hurson generously. Last year, the elder Rickman threw a fundraiser for Hurson at his Potomac estate, inviting more than 100 guests and charging $250 to $1,000 a person. Last month, the developer's son flew to Salt Lake City to help Hurson celebrate his appointment as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, and donated $10,000 in the name of Ocean Downs racetrack to the NCSL Foundation while there.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he won't "make any judgment" about Hurson's relationship with the Rickmans, but he noted that Hurson has been out front in advocating for a deal on slots.

"He's certainly taken an interest in it," Busch said, adding that Hurson was "very inquisitive" at Monday night's House leadership meeting, which preceded brief negotiations with a top aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) over a possible summer legislative session on slots.

In an interview yesterday, Hurson confirmed that he argued for bringing slots to Ocean Downs, though he said he was not the only one to do so.

"All I did was say that I have never understood why [Ehrlich] decided not to have [slots] at Ocean Downs," he said. "I asked if there was some reason why they wouldn't have them at Ocean Downs. Others in the meeting raised it as well. And I said, as part of an overall position I have, that we should have them at all racetracks, including Ocean Downs."

None of this, Hurson said, should be construed as advocating on the Rickmans' behalf. His position is based "not on personalities," he said, "but because they ought to be located in places that already have gambling. That includes Ocean Downs, as well as Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft."

To suggest that he was doing so for the Rickman family is "a potshot," Hurson said. William Rickman Jr. agreed, saying Hurson has always been "a good government guy."

"I'm close to a lot of legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike," Rickman said. "John happens to be one of them. There are no improprieties whatsoever in John supporting legislation that would be for the good for the entire racing industry."

This was not the first time Hurson's close ties to Rickman have raised questions. Last summer, 10 days before Rickman's fundraiser, Hurson wrote to House leaders, pitching a detailed plan to legalize slots. The proposal not only marked a political turnabout for Hurson, who had previously opposed such efforts, but it also stood to give Rickman control over a third of all slot machines in the state.

At the time, Hurson acknowledged consulting on the plan with the Rickmans. But he said the timing of the proposal was not connected to the fundraiser. Former delegate C. Richard D'Amato, an Annapolis Democrat who has been fighting slots, said he believes that there was then, and remains today, widespread discomfort about Hurson's ties to Rickman.

"Everyone knows that he's been involved with the owners, that they've given [his campaign] a lot of money, and that he, in turn, has been a strong advocate for them," D'Amato said. "My feeling is that it's not appropriate. It colors his judgment."

Others, including Busch and Jones, said they believe Hurson's latest push is motivated less by loyalty to Rickman than by a desire to see the matter resolved. "His interest, along with many others, is that people are tired of the issue," Busch said. "He has a lot he wants to do next session, and he doesn't want this to consume everyone. He wants, like we all do, to bring this to some kind of conclusion."