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Escutia's Husband Paid by Tribes

Consultant targeting gambling initiative has enlisted some of his wife's colleagues in the state Senate.

August 12, 2004|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The political consultant husband of an influential state senator has enlisted some of her colleagues to oppose an initiative he is being paid to defeat.

Indian tribes that own casinos have paid at least $40,000 to Leo Briones, husband of Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), to generate opposition to Proposition 68. The November initiative could end the tribes' monopoly on slot machines, the most lucrative game in any casino, by allowing them at card clubs and horse tracks that sponsored the measure.

In a letter prepared by Briones and sent to Latino elected officials and community leaders, five state senators and two assemblymen denounce Proposition 68 and urge recipients to fight it. The letter was sent on legislative letterhead, lending it an official-looking imprimatur.

Republican Sen. Jim Battin of La Quinta sent a letter out in March, on his legislative stationery, supporting a competing initiative that would expand casinos on Indian reservations.

The latest letter is signed by Democratic Sens. Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles, Denise Ducheny of San Diego, Dean Florez of Shafter, Deborah Ortiz of Sacramento and Nell Soto of Pomona. Each has endorsed Escutia in the race to replace John Burton as Senate president pro tem. He must retire at the end of the year because of term limits.

Escutia is considered a top contender for the position -- one of the most powerful in the state, with prominent roles in negotiations on legislation and the annual state budget. The Senate leader also oversees election strategy and fundraising.

Indian tribes with casinos have been the biggest donors to California politics in recent years, spending more than $170 million since 1998, including $32 million this year. Tribes have donated at least $36,000 to Escutia's campaigns, and have hired Briones in the past.

The Senate's 25 Democrats are expected to elect their new leader this month. Escutia's main rival is Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland). Briones has expertise valuable to the No-on-68 campaign, said Cedillo, who added: "That [Escutia] is involved in this effort to become pro tem should not impair his work."

Escutia has said she has no involvement in her husband's business. As Briones' spouse, however, she is entitled to half of any money he earns from his business, Centaur North.

"The campaign is looking for the person who can do the best job, and I'm sure that's why the decision was made" to hire Briones, said Scott Macdonald, who represents the tribe-funded campaign against Proposition 68. "He is there because he can do a good job."

Briones dismissed questions about his contract with the tribes, saying: "This is what I do for a living. I don't need her [Escutia] to get me business. I do a good job for my clients."

The letter ends with a suggestion that recipients with questions should "feel free to call Leo Briones" and provides his phone number. The letter invites people to fax or mail their responses to Briones' Los Angeles office.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Escutia said of the letter, adding that she had not taken a stand on the initiative. "I don't know who gives my husband contracts."

Haig Kelegian -- co-owner of the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens, a card room in Escutia's legislative district and one of the main backers of Proposition 68 -- denounced Briones' involvement in the No-on-68 effort. "It is total conflict," Kelegian said.

The initiative would require that tribes with casinos pay one-fourth of their profits to local law enforcement, fire services and education. If tribes refused to comply with that and several other requirements, six racetracks and 11 card rooms would divide 30,000 slot machines and pay the local governments a third of their profits -- $1 billion or more annually.

Kelegian's Bicycle Club and Ocean's 11 in Oceanside are among the card rooms that would receive slot machines. So would the Commerce Club, a card room in Escutia's district in which Kelegian has an interest. Kelegian said cities in Escutia's district needed the extra money Proposition 68 would provide.

The letter contends that the initiative would hurt schools and police, and says, "The Latino community has a strong and certain interest in improving our local schools and increasing public safety. We have also strongly supported the principle of limited gaming on sovereign Indian lands. As a community, we must remain vigilant and stay true to our principles. We can do so by rejecting Prop. 68, the Deceptive Gambling Proposition, and its false promises."

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