When Maryland political leaders made a clumsy attempt last week to broker a deal on slot machine gambling, it was with startling speed that three of Casper R. Taylor Jr.'s lobbying clients turned from allies to enemies.
At first, it seemed two companies represented by Taylor were about to hit the jackpot, securing between them three of six proposed licenses to open exclusive gambling venues in Maryland.
But a third client, the firm developing National Harbor in Prince George's County, was cut out of the deal -- and was left with the prospect of slots at a nearby venue drawing away its customers. So Taylor, a former House speaker who has long supported slots, began working to defeat the proposal.
The dilemma that Taylor faced last week could be magnified in January if lawmakers, as expected, revive the complex negotiations over slots.
Gambling companies spent a record $1.6 million last year on lobbying in Annapolis, and directed the bulk of that money to just a few heavy-hitting firms. At least four of the state's top-earning lobbyists have multiple clients who might be united in their desire to see slots legalized in Maryland but who eventually may be jockeying for the spoils.
"The problem is, slots has multiple layers of complexity that involve a number of businesses and a number of different corporations that might potentially have similar interests," said lobbyist Alan Rifkin, whose firm Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver represents both the Maryland Jockey Club -- a part owner of the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks -- and IGT, a Las Vegas company that makes video lottery terminals. "It's not unrealistic to assume there will be pitfalls. You have to prepare for that."
Taylor's role in last week's negotiations -- simultaneously representing Centaur Inc., Leucadia International Corp. and the Peterson Cos. -- caused public interest advocates to cringe. "When a legislator sees Cas Taylor coming to talk to them about slots, do they see Leucadia, National Harbor or Centaur?" asked James Browning of Common Cause/Maryland. "Who does he fight for?"
Taylor defended his actions, saying that he was upfront with his clients about his other relationships and that his efforts last week never presented a conflict for them.
Unlike lawyers, lobbyists in Maryland are under no legal obligation to avoid taking clients with conflicting interests. But most of the larger firms, including Rifkin's and Taylor's, have tried to impose strict rules on themselves.
Taylor is registered as the lobbyist for five companies that have a stake in the slots debate. Three of them, including Leucadia, are investors in Pimlico and Laurel Park. Centaur has claimed an interest in the Rosecroft harness track in Oxon Hill. And the Peterson company is building a $200 million complex of hotels and attractions at nearby National Harbor on the Potomac shore.
The senior partner in Taylor's lobbying firm, Gary Alexander, said he and the former speaker prepared extensively to avoid any hint of a conflict between their various gambling clients. Alexander shared the contents of an Oct. 29, 2003, agreement with Centaur, in which he and Taylor disclosed that they "currently represent Leucadia and may be entering into an agreement with Peterson Cos."
In addition, he and Taylor said, the agreement called on the lobbyists to represent Centaur only with respect to issues unrelated to slots.
"We made it very clear to the client," Alexander said. "National Harbor and Leucadia know exactly what we do. Cas has had an unblemished record. It would be unfair for anyone to ever say that we had a conflict."
Other lobbyists said their clients either see no conflict or are unconcerned about that potential.
John Pica, who represents two parties that have expressed an interest in purchasing Rosecroft, said that having both Centaur and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos on his client list does not present a conflict because he "does not represent Mr. Angelos with respect to the slots legislation."
Angelos's family has been trying to purchase Rosecroft, primarily because of its potential as a venue for slots.
"Neither of those clients is concerned," Pica said. "Otherwise, there would be an issue that would have to be resolved."
Gerard Evans said that as he pursues slots legislation on behalf of Angelos and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman's Association, their interests work in harmony.
But if the Angelos family succeeds in buying Rosecroft, he said, there could come a time when they and the horsemen are competing over the same pool of money. Were that to happen, Evans said, "It would be very difficult to represent both at the same time because there could be a scenario where their two interests conflict."
Neither Angelos nor representatives for the other companies involved in lobbying on slots would return calls seeking comment.
Sean Dobson, deputy director for the public interest group Progressive Maryland, which monitors lobbying activity, said he believes he knows why these companies would hire lobbyists in spite of their other relationships.
"In their frenzy to get access to lawmakers, the gambling industry has thrown caution to the wind," Dobson said. The companies have "lavished campaign contributions on politicians and shoveled money at the best connected lobbyists, regardless of potential for conflicts of interest."
Slots opponents, and even some proponents, have questioned whether competition among the powerful business interests trying to profit from slots ultimately could undermine prospects for an expansion of legal gambling in Maryland.
Yesterday, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said a group of gaming lobbyists was back in Annapolis trying to resolve that problem in much the same way it has been solved in such states as Pennsylvania. Their proposal: expand the number of licenses so no one leaves empty-handed.