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Casino plans will put lobbyists in high gear

Some may have violated Mass. law

Governor Deval Patrick's embrace of casino gambling in Massachusetts is creating a bonanza for Beacon Hill lobbyists, many of whom began quietly pushing their clients' casino proposals earlier this year and are now expected to work at a much more frenzied pace.

The amount paid to lobbyists by gaming interests in the first half of 2007 jumped 20 percent over last year, well before Patrick made his announcement this week, from $464,376 to $558,000, according to records at the secretary of state's office.

Officials are predicting that the total will rise even more dramatically as the governor drafts his bill to license three Massachusetts casinos and files it with the Legislature. Casino interests will try to shape the legislation and convince lawmakers that expanded gaming is good for Massachusetts.

Among the big-time casino operators hiring lobbyists for the debate are Donald Trump and Harrah's Entertainment.

"It's clearly a growth industry," said Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office regulates lobbying in the state. "There will be hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, and it could be much more. These things are capable of promoting huge windfalls for lobbyists."

A long line of advocates - individual lobbyists and members of interest groups - met privately with state officials over the past several months, according to documents released by the Patrick administration. Though the administration pledged to make any gambling process open and free of corruption, some of those advocating for or against casinos may have violated state law, according to Galvin.

Yesterday his office sent warning letters to 29 people or organizations who, according to Patrick administration records, met with Economic Development Secretary Daniel O'Connell or his staff, but were not registered as lobbyists. The letters advised the individuals of the registration requirements. The list of recipients includes tribal representatives, casino owners, and advocates opposed to gambling who did not register as lobbyists.

"Based on records released by the administration, we now have some evidence that there was lobbying activity for a fee on both sides - some for, some opposed - that was not reported," Galvin said. "The public needs to know who is being paid to influence this important decision."

The amount spent on lobbying since Patrick's announcement this week won't be available until the end of the year. But the reports filed through the end of June give an indication of the big fees that have begun to flow.

Suffolk Downs, for example, which was bought by new owners last year, has about a dozen lobbyists and lawyers helping them make a case for a casino at the East Boston site. The company, which has spent $96,000 on lobbying on gambling and development issues related to its operations in the first half of 2007, is on track to double the $90,000 it spent in 2006.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe also has put together a team of strategists, lobbyists, and lawyers to help it navigate the worlds of government and public relations.

Another tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag, has stepped up its lobbying this year. After spending $5,000 last year, it had paid its lobbyist, Roger Donoghue, $30,000 by the end of June.

Most other casino operators and local track owners also have lobbyists on their payroll, including Harrah's Entertainment; the Westwood Group, which owns Wonderland Park in Revere; Penn National Gaming, which owns 18 casinos and horse racing tracks; Plainridge Racecourse; and Massasoit Greyhound Inc., which owns Raynham Park.

A Trump company, TER Development, registered to lobby here for the first time in 2007. It paid its lobbyist, Dennis Murphy, $62,500 through June.

Absent from the lobbyist list is MGM Grand, a very large casino operator that has not hired a lobbyist but is expected to.

But a few would-be casino developers are doing their own lobbying. Sheldon Adelson, for example, a Massachusetts native who owns casinos across the world, has been visiting Beacon Hill power brokers by himself.

And Frank Fitzgerald, a lawyer working on a casino proposal in the town of Palmer with the owners of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, said he doesn't need to hire anyone.

"Our message is clear," he said. "We're out here in Western Massachusetts and would like to do an economic development project that will help the region," he said. "It's not that complicated to communicate. We have a great legislative delegation out here who are easily accessible and listen to us. We don't need help communicating with them."

Some of the people who were sent reminder letters by the secretary of state's office yesterday are registered as lobbyists, but have not disclosed that they have signed up gambling clients, Galvin said. Anyone who lobbies for a fee, or hires a lobbyist, must sign up with the state, he said, and each client or area of interest must be listed separately when the lobbyist registers.

The letters, citing the state's "strict lobbyist registration and reporting requirement," asks the recipients to make sure they are complying with the rules.

"We're taking a comprehensive approach to all of this," Galvin said. "Anybody trying to influence this decision - the burden rests with them to tell us why they don't have to register. The record we've seen gives us reason to make an inquiry."

Among those who were sent letters were John Stefanini, a lawyer working with Suffolk Downs; Edward Saunders, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference; Roberta Hurtig of the Samaritans of Greater Boston; Thomas Butters, a lawyer who represents a company looking to open a gambling ship; Edson Arneault of the Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in West Virginia; Barry Sternlicht, founder of the Starwood Capital Group; and Len Wolman, a developer who has teamed up with the Mashpee Wampanoag on the tribe's Middleborough casino project.

Several of the 29 who received letters said they don't believe they are required to register.

"I'm not opposed to register to lobby, if I lobby," said Stefanini, adding that he works for Suffolk Downs pro bono. "I have not lobbied on this issue. I represent one of the shareholders at Suffolk Downs and have for several years. I'm his lead lawyer."

Saunders, of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, said he believes his registration as a lobbyist for the Roman Catholic Church extends to gambling.

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said he has complied with all reporting requirements, and has not lobbied on gambling. "I don't know what the issue is," said Mineau, who is against expanded gaming.

April Simpson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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