THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

National interests spending big on Beacon Hill to try to get edge

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / August 25, 2011

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Major national gambling interests spent $1.14 million in the first six months of the year to lobby on Beacon Hill, seeking to influence a handful of powerful lawmakers as they worked behind closed doors to craft the casino bill that was made public Tuesday, according to records compiled by the secretary of state’s office.

Most of that money was spent to hire lobbyists, who have pressed the interests of Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands Corp., Penn National Gaming, and other gambling firms.

The biggest spender, as in past years, was Suffolk Downs, which spent $191,000 as it pushes to build a sprawling casino and hotel complex in East Boston.

Gambling lobbyists also gave to the campaign accounts of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, who wield the most power over the bill, which would legalize three casinos and one slot parlor.

Though limited to one $200 donation a year, lobbyists at firms that represent gambling interests gave $13,875 to DeLeo and $7,550 to Murray in the last year and a half.

“It is naïve to believe there is no potential here for improper influence and corruption,’’ said former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, who heads Citizens for a Stronger Massachusetts, a group opposed to the casino bill.

“We’ve seen enough impact of that in Massachusetts and around the country, and to just treat it as, ‘well, that’s not an issue,’ is just unrealistic,’’ Harshbarger said.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose office regulates lobbyists, said he is bracing for an influx of them as more gambling firms from across the country rush to take advantage of a lucrative opportunity in Massachusetts.

“My guess is the amount is going to increase,’’ Galvin said. “And we will be assessing penalties to those who register late. We will not tolerate them not being registered to lobby.’’

Galvin said it is no surprise that gambling promoters are spending heavily to influence lawmakers. During the first six months of last year, when it appeared that casino legislation was on the brink of becoming law, gambling interests spent $1.8 million.

“At the end of the day, this is all about money,’’ Galvin said. While opponents and supporters can argue about the merits and drawbacks of casinos, “one thing neither side will deny is there are individual private entities that will make a lot of money off of this,’’ he said.

The opposition to casinos, meanwhile, is being funded in part by David F. D’Alessandro, a former chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services, who said he has given nearly $50,000 to Harshbarger’s group since it was founded 18 months ago.

D’Alessandro has described how, at age 9, he watched his father, a deli owner and gambling addict, be threatened with a meat cleaver by loan sharks connected to the Mafia.

“I don’t think people fully understand what they’re buying here,’’ said D’Alessandro, who wants a broader public debate about the economic and social costs of casinos.

“The politicians will say, ‘Well, we’ve had a lot of debate.’ But they’ve had a lot of debate amongst themselves.’’

Even with the $200 contribution limit for lobbyists, DeLeo collected $2,925 from O’Neill and Associates, which represents Mohegan Tribal Gaming, and $1,400 from Shanley, Fleming, Boksanski & Cahill, which represents Penn National.

Murray’s donations included $2,450 from ML Strategies, which represents Wynn Resorts.

Governor Deval Patrick has made a point of rejecting donations from gambling lobbyists, saying he wants to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Though he has violated the policy several times, he has subsequently returned any gambling money.

Murray and DeLeo, however, defended the donations they have received.

“Lobbyists carry no special sway or access as a result of their political contributions to the DeLeo Committee,’’ said DeLeo’s campaign treasurer, David N. Martin.

“Speaker DeLeo makes policy decisions based on the best interests of the Commonwealth and only the Commonwealth,’’ said Martin.

Seth Gitell, DeLeo’s State House spokesman, said the speaker tries to distance himself from gambling lobbyists.

“While the speaker has been a long-time and well-known supporter of expanded gaming as a new source of jobs in the state, it has been his policy to not knowingly meet with gaming interests or advocates since becoming speaker,’’ Gitell said.

Murray said that, although she takes money from gambling lobbyists, she does not accept donations from anyone who works directly for a casino or other gambling firm.

She argued that the more than $1 million spent on lobbying so far this year “will have no bearing on how we approach gaming legislation.’’

“The lobbyists who have donated to the Senate president have other clients, and she has never discussed gambling with them or any of their clients,’’ said Laura Schroeder, Murray’s Senate spokeswoman.

“She has also never engaged in any meetings with lobbyists or gaming organizations to discuss expanded gaming in Massachusetts,’’ Schroeder said.

Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, is Murray’s designee to meet with gambling lobbyists.

Rosenberg said he was not sure how many lobbyists he has met with so far this year, but said it was fewer than in the frenzied first six months of last year.

“What lobbyists and interest groups buy is access,’’ Rosenberg said. “They don’t buy votes.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.