WASHINGTON (AP) — The gambling industry lavished money on both political parties last year in a successful effort to block legislation that would ban betting on college sports, the consumer group Public Citizen says.
The group says while the cash flowed in, Democratic and Republican leaders competed to see which side could deliver the knockout blow to the bill.
"This is the most transparent and blatant illustration of how soft money corrupts our politics," said Steve Weissman, a co-author of a Public Citizen report released Thursday. The group was founded by Ralph Nader, who attacked corporate influence in politics in his Green Party campaign last year.
The casino industry denies its political donations earned any kind of special treatment.
"The American Gaming Association makes no apology for legally participating in the political process," said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., president of the casino industry's chief lobbying group. He said casino employees and shareholders "have a right to have their views and concerns heard and fairly considered by members of Congress."
Championed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the legislation sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, was approved by committees in both chambers but never was posted for a floor vote.
Graham said he will reintroduce the bill in the House this week but realizes he has a powerful adversary in the casino industry.
"The influence of money to both parties last year after this bill got a hearing was immense, and it mattered," Graham said.
The American Gaming Association, which lobbies for commercial casinos, recently formed an offshoot group, Americans for Casino Entertainment, to organize campaigns against the proposed ban.
Nevada is the only state that allows college sports betting. Its gambling industry took in $2.3 billion in sports wagers in fiscal 1999, with 30 percent to 40 percent bet on college sports.
Public Citizen released its report to coincide with "March Madness," the annual college basketball tournament that means big business for Nevada's legal sports-betting operations. The tournament also attracts illegal betting elsewhere in the nation, which the casino industry contends is the real problem Congress should address.
The study found that the American Gaming Association, its member casinos and manufacturers, and their executives donated $2.3 million in soft money to Republican committees and $1.6 million to Democratic committees during the 1999-2000 election cycle. The total, $3.9 million, represents a 70 percent increase from the previous election.
Soft money refers to unregulated contributions to political parties from corporations, unions and individuals. There is no limit on such contributions.
The leading recipients of donations from casinos were congressional fund-raising committees.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raked in more than $1 million, compared with $42,800 in the previous election cycle, while the National Republican Congressional Committee accepted $889,550, up from $77,250, according to Public Citizen.
A defining moment, the report says, occurred just days after the sports-betting bill was introduced in February 2000, when casino mogul Steve Wynn declared his industry would boost its financial support to Democrats in their fight to regain control of both chambers of Congress.
"All the party leaders in the House and the Senate had the sense that they were competing for money, and they had to satisfy the gambling industry," Weissman said.
Key players in the competition to woo casinos were Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.; Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairmen of the GOP's Senate and House fund-raising committees; House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.; and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
Two former presidential candidates, Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican Gary Bauer, endorsed the Public Citizen report.
"This report is a good reason for those who care about college sports to support campaign finance reform," said Bradley, who sponsored the 1992 law that banned sports betting in most states but exempted Nevada.
On the Net:
Public Citizen: www.citizen.org
American Gaming Association: www.americangaming.org