Friday, January 11, 2002

Track gifts fine with legislators

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — A Northern Kentucky lawmaker said he had no problem accepting a $500 political contribution from Churchill Downs, even though the race track is lobbying this session for expanded gambling in Kentucky.

        Rep. Jon Draud, R-Crestview Hills, said he won't be influenced by the contribution when it comes time to vote on any gambling-related bills.

        “It won't influence me one way or another,” Mr. Draud said Thursday. “I see nothing wrong with taking contributions from Churchill or any other (Political Action Committees). I can see how people might interpret that taking a contribution from (Churchill) is not appropriate. I understand that.

        “But I'm open-minded on the gambling issue,” he said. “I haven't made a decision, and a political contribution of $500 is not going to change my mind either way.”

        The president of Common Cause of Kentucky on Thursday filed a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Commission about Churchill Downs and the 25 legislators to whom it contributed $15,500 in campaign donations last week.

        Richard Beliles, who said he filed the complaint as an individual and not on behalf of the organization, said he wants the ethics commission to prohibit Churchill Downs from lobbying the legislators who got the money and direct legislators to return the contributions.

        Many recipients have already returned the money.

        Mr. Beliles acknowledged that the contributions do not violate any legal or ethical rules.

        “I may not be totally correct, but it just doesn't seem right,” Mr. Beliles said.

        The ethics commission declined to confirm or deny the complaint. The commission usually operates in secret.

        A spokesman for Churchill Downs said the contributions are routine, even if the circumstances were unusual.

        Mr. Beliles said the contributions leave the impression that money buys access to legislators.

        Mr. Draud said about the same time he accepted the Churchill contribution, he received checks from “seven or eight other PACs,” including one from the Kentucky Medical Association and another one representing ophthalmologists.

        Louisville-based Churchill is involved in a thoroughbred industry effort to allow the installation of gaming devices known as Video Lottery Terminals — a type of electronic slot and poker machine — at race tracks around the state.

        So far no bills expanding casino-style gaming have been filed, but such legislation is expected.

        After reporters raised questions about contributions made by Churchill's PAC, the track released a list Wednesday of the 25 lawmakers to whom it has contributed a total of $15,500 since the first of the year.

        Over the past three months, Churchill has contributed $50,000 to lawmakers.

        At least four lawmakers have returned the contributions, including Northern Kentucky lawmakers Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, and House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder.

        Both said Wednesday they were concerned about the timing of the contributions, which came just days before Tuesday's opening of the 2002 General Assembly session.

        But another lawmaker with Northern Kentucky ties, Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, kept a $1,000 donation.

        “I don't see where it makes much of a difference. We're going to vote on the issues as we see them,” said Mr. Harris, who represents Grant and Gallatin counties.

       The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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- Track gifts fine with legislators