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Anti-Gambling Activists Warn Of Stacked Commission Deck

But casino officials deny trying to influence selection of study panel

Anti-gambling activists are accusing the casino industry of spending $232,000 on lobbyists since last July to stack a national gambling study commission with sympathetic appointees.

They also say that $1.9 million in contributions from gambling businesses to the Democratic Party during the '96 election may be influencing the appointments.

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Industry officials deny the charges and note that earlier this month Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed - a gambling opponent - presented the White House with a list of 11 commission candidates approved by his organization.

The appointment issue arises as both sides in the contentious gambling debate await the selection by President Clinton of the final three commission members. The panel is to study the social and economic effects of legalized gambling in the US.

Casinos and other gambling enterprises employ more than 1 million workers. Gambling is one of the fastest-growing industries in the US.

Six of the nine commissioners have already been named by members of Congress. Two are considered pro-gambling, two are considered anti-gambling, and two are believed to be neutral. That means Mr. Clinton's selections could tilt the commission to one side or the other. All appointments were supposed to be completed last October, prior to the election.

Gambling opponents at the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG) say they hope Clinton appoints neutral and objective commissioners who will conduct aggressive fact-finding.

But they say they believe the $1.9 million in soft-money donations the gambling industry made to the Democratic Party may be playing a role in the president's appointments. They also cite $232,000 in lobbying fees paid to well-connected Washington insiders working, they say, to influence who is named to the commission.

"If they can stop an objective study it is well worth it to them," says Bernie Horn, NCALG's political director.

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Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association, says his organization has spent no money lobbying specifically for commission appointments. And he says it is wrong to assume that campaign contributions affect the selection process.

"These kinds of allegations... are disgraceful,'' says Mr. Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "For the amount of money that is involved here do you believe you are going to buy the president of the United States?"

According to lobby registration statements on file in Congress, Fahrenkopf's AGA spent $460,000 on lobbying between July and December 1996. The forms say one of the two issues the group worked on was "Establishment of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission." Of the $460,000, lobby registration forms show that $232,000 went to nine outside lobbyists.

The bill establishing the gambling commission passed both houses of Congress in mid-July and was signed into law by Clinton on Aug. 3. Most of the heavy-duty AGA lobbying - which was aimed at defeating the bill and killing the commission - took place in March, April, and May.

Gambling opponents say the conclusion they draw is that money spent after July 1 was used to influence the makeup of the panel. "The bill passed the Senate in mid-July and there was no real lobbying to be done [just] prior to the signing of the bill, so this time had to have been spent trying to influence the appointments," says Mr. Horn. "To me $232,000 is a lot of money to spend on trying to influence the appointments....''

Fahrenkopf insists that his lobbyists were not trying to stack the commission. He says the $232,000 represents a standard six-month retainer paid to the nine lobbyists to keep an eye on developments in Congress and the White House that might affect the industry. He says developments related to the commission were included in that work, but did not involve attempts to influence appointments.

"We adopted an attitude that if the [AGA] were to endorse any candidate for appointment to the commission it would be akin to a kiss of death,'' he says.

Lobbyists employed by the AGA include: ex-Rep. Dennis Eckart (D) of Ohio; Judy Kern Fazio, ex-director of finance for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and wife of Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California; Kenneth Duberstein, President Reagan's assistant for legislative affairs; Steven Champlin, former director of the House Democratic Caucus; and Donald Fierce, former aide to Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour.

As for NCALG, Horn says it made no campaign donations and spent less than $200 on lobbying other than the cost of his salary and that of the executive director. He says the NCALG is not required to file lobbying forms with Congress because they spend less than $10,000 per year lobbying.

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