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Sheriff's Stand on Slots May Benefit Big Donors

Lee Baca endorses an initiative that could aid law enforcement budgets and bring profits to racetracks and card rooms.

March 28, 2004|Dan Morain and Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's promotion of an initiative to allow slot machines at card rooms and racetracks could benefit one of his biggest donors, a review of his campaign finances shows.

Card clubs, horse tracks and people affiliated with them -- who could profit from the measure if it makes the ballot and passes -- have given Baca $50,000 since he was elected five years ago. While that is a fraction of the $2.2 million he has raised for campaigns, it is not all he has received from gambling interests.

Baca's nonprofit corporation, the Sheriff's Youth Foundation, has received $115,700 since 2001 from the state's largest card room, the Commerce Casino.

Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas, the other prominent law enforcement official backing the initiative, has accepted almost $50,000 from donors with gambling interests since 1996.

Card rooms and horse tracks are financing the initiative, which is intended for the November ballot. It could end the state's restriction of Nevada-style gambling to Indian lands and allot 30,000 slot machines -- the most lucrative game for any casino owner -- to existing card clubs and racetracks in Southern California and the Bay Area.

Many law enforcement officials shun the measure, but a letter bearing the two sheriffs' signatures will arrive in mailboxes starting Monday, urging voters to sign petitions to place it on the ballot.

The letter says the measure would provide $2 billion a year for law enforcement, education-related programs and fire protection by forcing Indian tribes, which currently make relatively modest payments to the state from their gambling proceeds, to pay more or lose their monopoly.

"The enclosed petition simply asks the Indian casinos to agree to pay their fair share for the exclusive monopoly that we have given them," the letter states.

The initiative specifies that, if tribes do not agree, the card rooms and racetracks will be entitled to slot machines and will pay the state a percentage of their take.

Both sheriffs dismissed any connection between their endorsements and the contributions they have received.

"There is no sustained source of funding for law enforcement," Blanas said, adding that his department stands to receive $12 million yearly in gambling proceeds if the initiative passes.

"I need more public safety money," Baca said in an interview. "That is my motivation."

Baca oversees the nation's largest sheriff's department. He is promoting the initiative at the same time he warns against cuts to his $1.65-billion budget. To save money, he has been releasing inmates early from county jails.

USC law professor Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics, said the donations to the sheriff give the "appearance" that he supports the measure, at least partly, because of the campaign funds.

"However independently he made up his mind," Garrett said, "there is an appearance that part of what went into his decision was a feeling of gratitude for that group's support for a cause that is very important to him."

The sheriffs' letter, being sent to 2 million Californians, is intended to help proponents obtain the 600,000 valid signatures of registered voters needed to put the measure on the November ballot. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is pushing a competing initiative that would allow tribes unlimited casino expansion rights on their own land.

Under the initiative backed by Baca and Blanas, if tribes declined to pay the state 25% of their gambling winnings or to abide by all of several other terms spelled out in the measure, five horse racetracks and 11 card rooms would get the 30,000 slots. Seven card rooms in Los Angeles County and three racetracks in Los Angeles and Orange counties would be entitled to 20,200 machines.

The gambling concerns would pay local and state governments 33% of their winnings. The sheriffs' letter pegs that sum at $2 billion annually; the legislative analyst's office estimated it to be $1 billion a year or more.

Blanas was first to endorse the measure late last year after his political consultant, David Townsend, presented it to him. Townsend is also one of the consultants working to win passage of the initiative. Blanas urged Baca to endorse it.

Rick Baedeker, president of Hollywood Park racetrack, said the endorsements were "very important" and helped solidify support for the campaign from Churchill Downs Co., the owner of Hollywood Park. The track could get 3,000 slot machines, and a card room on the grounds could get 1,700.

"Voters want to have confidence that this is a positive measure," Baedeker said. "These are names they're familiar with. They lend a great deal of credibility to it."

In 1998, as Baca sought to unseat Sheriff Sherman Block, he attacked the incumbent for taking donations from card rooms. But among Baca's donors with gambling interests, the biggest contributor is the Commerce Casino, which has 230 tables.

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