Maryland law enforcement officials are investigating allegations that small businessmen have been asked to pay up to $3,000 in bribes to obtain lottery game machines from the state lottery agency.
Several merchants have told lottery officials that persons who left the impression they were go-betweens for members of the Lottery Commission told them they would have to pay money to get one of the highly profitable machines.
The shiny computerized lottery terminals placed in taverns, stores and restaurant throughout the state print tickets for the daily "Number Games." They are in great demand because of the commissions the merchants earn from them - as much as $1,000 a week.
The allegations were first made to lottery director Stanley S. Fine, who said he asked the Maryland attorney general and the Baltimore City state's attorney to investigate. "I don't feel we ought to investigate ourselves," said Fine.
Deputy Attorney General Jon F. Oster said his office probably will ask State Police today to investigate the charges. Oster refused to comment on the allegations.
Baltimore States Attorney William A. Swisher said his office is still investigating an alleged bribe attempt reported to him by Fine five weeks ago. "The matter is still pending," said Swisher, adding "I don't think further comment is appropriate."
According to informed sources, at least three Baltimore area businessmen have told lottery officials they were asked for bribes to ease the path for the award of a lottery machine by the five-member lottery commission.
There is intense competition fro the cash register-sized terminals among small shop owners who enjoy an upsurge in floor traffic as well as the profitable 5 per cent commission on ticket sales.
It was reported last year that the lottery commission had awarded a hight percentage of terminals to liquor store and food shop owners with political ties to members of the commission or other powerful Maryland political figures.
Commission members sit through hundreds of applications before selecting the relatives few terminals to be placed in shops around the state. They claim to have used strict marketing principles in awarding the 600 machines now in place.
The merchants who say they have been approached for payoffs claim they were promised help in obtaining a machine in return for cash payments, according to informed sources.
None of those merchants paid and none has received a terminal.
The Baltimore state's attorney's investigation centers on an allegation made by the owner of a Baltimore liquor store that he was offered help in landing a terminal in return for $1,500, according to sources close to the investigation.
The application of the liquor store owner, Sheldon Sherman, was approved in late July, records show. But commission members decided to reverse themselves two weeks later after Sherman allegedly told three lottery officials he had been asked for a payoff, accoridng to knowledgeable sources, Sherman denied in an interview that he reported bribes to lottery officials.
One of the allegations in the hands of the attorney general, sources said, comes from a Baltimore suburban barber who said he told Fine he had been asked for $2,000 in exchange for help in obtaining a terminal.
In an interview with The Washington Post, the barber, Jame Lurman, said the man who made the solicitation said he was a friend of one of the lottery commissioners and had already helped two other merchants obtain terminals.
Lurman also told The Post he had been approached by a seccond man who offered to help him land a terminal in exchange for about $500 worth of clothing for one of the lottery commissioners.
Lurman said he agreed to make the $500 payment, to the man. But he informed Fine a short time later about bribery attempts and he was never again approached for the payment, he said in the interview.
The attorney general office has another allegations from the owner of a Baltimore office supply store who said he was help in obtaining a terminal for $3,000 in cash, sources said.The merchant turned down the offer.
The lottery commission is appointed by the governor and is generally composed of friends of the politically powerful in Maryland. It is chaired by George P. Mahoney, the septuagenarian political warhorse.
During the administration of Gov. Marvin Mandel, many of the lottery commissioners were said to have been handpicked by Mandel's close political associates.
Although it is a nonpaying job, being a commissioner is considered a political plum.
In its early years - the commission was created in 1972 - the panel ws thrown in disarray by political infighting among its staff and commission members. In recent years, the commission has been in relative peace.
The job of lottery commissioner remained relatively unsensitive until the spring of 1976 when commissioners began choosing licensed agents to run the daily lottery terminals. The game began operating in August of that year.
From its first days, the daily game has been a great success, outselling other state run lotteries in the nation. After commissions and payouts, the sales proceeds are placed in the state treasury.