Doubts About Clinton's Gambling Panel Picks

Study of industry's impact may be biased, say critics

Anti-casino organizers are complaining that President Clinton is trying to stack the deck in a new federal commission to study the impact of legalized gambling.

Although Mr. Clinton has yet to name his three selections to the two-year study panel, industry sources and press reports indicate the president is leaning toward appointing pro-gambling officials from Las Vegas and Atlantic City, as well as a representative of native American gambling interests.

The president's selections would bring to five the number of pro-gambling commissioners on the nine-member panel.

Opponents charge that the president's appointments would amount to payback to the gaming industry for campaign contributions. Gambling industry officials counter that their opponents are exaggerating their influence.

Gambling firms are not among the nation's biggest political contributors, but the industry gave more than $2.5 million to the Democratic Party during the past election, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

The issue arises at a time when the White House is already under a media microscope for allegedly soliciting campaign contributions in exchange for access to the president. In addition, the Justice Department and a Senate committee are investigating fund-raising activities at the Democratic National Committee and the White House.

Gambling opponents say the expected Clinton appointments are an example of how political contributions can directly influence the conduct of government. "It is a quid pro quo," says Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG) in Washington.

The National Gambling Impact and Policy Commission was established by Congress last year despite heavy opposition lobbying by the gaming industry. Its mandate is to explore the social and economic impacts of all forms of legalized gambling in the United States.

Congress acted on the issue as a result of the explosive growth in casinos and other forms of gambling nationwide since the late 1980s. Casino gambling revenues alone have doubled since 1990, topping $25 billion. The industry now employs some 1 million people.

Mr. Grey and other anti-gambling organizers charge that the gaming industry is seeking to undermine the effectiveness of the commission, having failed last year to block the creation of the panel in Congress.

"They are trying to stack the deck," Grey says. "Their top priority is to weaken the new federal gambling commission's study by filling the commission with gambling advocates."

A White House spokesperson declined to comment on whether the gaming industry had purchased access and influence from the president.

The president is expected to name his selections to the commission "soon," the spokesperson said. "We will let the nominations speak for themselves."

One pro-gambling advocate already named to the commission is Terrence Lanni, chairman of MGM Grand Inc., a Los Vegas-based casino firm.

"I don't think this is being purchased by any stretch of the imagination," Mr. Lanni says.

He acknowledges that casino companies and other gambling businesses made campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. "You are always looking for the ability to have your opinion heard," Lanni says, "but it doesn't mean you will have influence."

Reports on file with the Federal Election Commission show that Mr. Lanni's firm, MGM Grand, contributed $48,000 to Democrats and $53,500 to Republicans in soft money and political action committee contributions last year.

Lanni says that gambling advocates like himself may not be objective on the gaming issue, but they can be fair-minded members of the commission. He said the commission and its final report would benefit by having fellow commissioners with detailed knowledge of the internal workings of casinos and other legal gambling operations.

Some gambling opponents question whether Lanni's role on the commission might place him in direct conflict of interest should the panel subpoena financial or other proprietary records and marketing data from competing casino operations. They also question whether it is appropriate to include on the panel a gambling industry executive whose own company might be hurt in the event the commission issues a report critical of the gambling industry.

"I can't understand why if we needed to have a strong gambling advocate why someone couldn't be found who didn't have a financial interest in the outcome," says Bernie Horn, NCALG's political director. "I think that the gambling executives should be witnesses and not judges in an objective study of gambling."

Lanni counters that there are legitimate gambling issues to be investigated, and that he is approaching his job on the commission with a constructive frame of mind.

He cites the problem of people becoming addicted to gambling as a necessary area for investigation. "There is no doubt in my mind that there is a percentage of people who are addicted to gaming," he says. The commission has an opportunity to conduct solid research into the area and help guide the gambling industry toward a better way to deal with the problem.

"We need to get some better factual information so we can then move forward and debate the issue," Lanni says.

The casino executive says that if a potential conflict of interest arises on the commission he would seek legal advice and, if necessary, recuse himself from that portion of the study. "I would never do anything that would give us [MGM Grand] an advantage over our competitors," he says.

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