Card Clubs See Tribes' Influence and Raise
The L.A. County casinos contribute more than $1 million to lawmakers' causes, including a recall campaign against a GOP senator who ran afoul of Don Perata.
SACRAMENTO -- Watching anxiously as the state deals
lucrative contracts to Indian gaming groups, a coalition of
seven Los Angeles County casinos has anted up to increase
its influence with legislative leaders, donating $1.3
million to lawmakers' pet causes in the last 18 months.
The contributions were made to committees with ties to
state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and
others. Legislative leaders have passed a batch of bills
this year that relax rules on the casinos.
At least one of the contributions by the Los Angeles
Casinos Political Action Committee has raised eyebrows.
The casinos gave $250,000 to a Perata-supported political
group that is paying petition circulators to gather
signatures for a recall of state Sen. Jeff Denham
(R-Merced), who has clashed with the Democratic leader over
the budget and other issues.
The donation to the Voter Education and Registration Fund,
a general-purpose political committee whose goals include
registering voters and recalling Denham, has prompted
questions about why the casinos would become involved in a
recall campaign 300 miles away. Denham supporters contend
that the casinos are grateful for Perata's having helped
push through a package of bills this year that relaxed
state rules and restrictions on card clubs.
"When people are in leadership, they have the ability to
move or not move legislation," said Wayne C. Johnson, a
political consultant for Denham.
Denham voted against a flood-control bond backed by Perata
last year, then ran afoul of the Senate leader during the
summer by refusing to join Democratic lawmakers and one GOP
colleague in voting for the state budget that Perata wanted
passed, according to Paul Hefner, a spokesman for both
Perata and the committee funding the recall. The budget
stalled without the second Republican vote, and Perata
confessed he was embarrassed.
Perata supports recalling Denham because "he doesn't want
to go through next year what he went through this year,"
Perata and Denham both declined to be interviewed,
referring calls to spokesmen.
Los Angeles County casino operators said their donation to
the Voter Fund had more to do with Perata than Denham. In
addition to that contribution, the card clubs gave $250,000
to a separate political fund supporting a measure on the
The measure would change term limits so Perata, Assembly
Speaker Fabian Nu?ez (D-Los Angeles) and 32 other lawmakers
would not be forced to leave office next year.
Larry Flynt, whose Hustler Casino in Gardena donated to the
PAC, said he was not aware of a Denham-Perata feud. His
hope is that the money helps the casinos politically at a
time when, he says, Indian gambling seems to be getting
preferential treatment in Sacramento.
The L.A. County card clubs have sat on the sidelines as
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature recently
approved agreements with Indian tribes in Riverside and San
Diego counties that authorize the addition of 17,000 slot
machines among the tribes in exchange for profit sharing
with the state.
The governor has "given the Indians everything," Flynt
said. "We are trying to create an even playing field."
Andrew Schneiderman, vice president of the California
Commerce Club, the PAC's biggest donor, said through a
spokeswoman that he didn't know there was a recall campaign
Other casino operators said they gave money to the Voter
Fund to promote the election of legislators sympathetic to
their industry. They expressed surprise that the Voter Fund
had taken the lead in trying to oust Denham. They had no
grievance with Denham, they said.
Perata is "the central force" in fundraising for the Voter
Fund, according to Perata political spokesman Hefner, who
would not say how much money the Senate leader raises.
Neither Hefner nor the casino operators would say whether
Perata solicited their donations.
The Voter Fund's executive director is Sandi Polka, a close
friend of and top political strategist for Perata.
The casinos' contribution represented 70% of the money
raised by the fund in the month before the recall effort
was launched. The fund has raised money from many
supporters and has done voter registration, said Hefner,
who also speaks on behalf of the Voter Fund. He said it was
a coincidence that all $47,000 spent by the Voter Fund
after the casinos' donation went to recall expenses,
including the design, printing and circulation of
Denham referred calls for comment to his political
consultant, Johnson, who said it was "outright wrong" to
raise money for voter registration and then use it for a
During the budget dispute, Perata removed Denham from a key
Senate committee. Around the same time, a group of voters
in Denham's district filed papers to circulate a recall
petition. "He won election based on the promise to be a
bipartisan problem solver and he reneged on that promise,"
Denham, who is 40 and runs an almond farm in Merced County,
has a committee that has raised $200,000 to fight the
recall. His district, which extends from Merced to
Monterey, is seen by Democratic Party leaders as one they
should hold, because redistricting in 2001 gave the party a
9% edge in voter registration.
State records show that Perata supported the efforts of
casinos this year to win approval of a batch of bills aimed
at relaxing gambling rules.
The bills included SB 289, which allows people who hold
California gambling licenses to also have an investment in
Nevada gambling companies and tribal casinos.
The bill, recently signed into law by the governor, was
written "on behalf of a group of card clubs in Southern
California,"' according to a legislative analysis.
"The way it is set up now you can't own an interest in a
casino in Nevada," Flynt said. "It's stupid."
The bill was opposed by the California Coalition Against
Gambling Expansion, which argued that such partnerships
encourage "the continued slide toward unfettered gambling
Perata also supported and the governor signed SB 730, which
allows licensed employees to work in multiple key positions
in any gambling establishment and also allows chips to be
used on a gambling floor to pay for food and drinks.
That legislation was sponsored by the Southern California
casinos, which said it would give casino workers more
flexibility to move from position to position.
Another bill was SB 152, which would have allowed some
cities and counties to increase the number of card tables
without voter approval. The governor vetoed the bill,
saying it would be a significant lifting of the state
moratorium on card clubs.
In addition to the Commerce and Hustler clubs, the Los
Angeles Casinos Political Action Committee has been funded
this year by the Hawaiian Gardens Casino, the Bicycle Club
Casino in Bell Gardens, Normandie Casino in Gardena, the
Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood and the Crystal Casino
and Hotel in Compton.
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