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Critics question Cannon's motives in opposing Internet gambling

By Daniel Michaels, May 20th 2005
WASHINGTON (AP) - Rep. Chris Cannon calls gambling a ''pernicious vice'' that should be outlawed. But the Utah Republican repeatedly has fought to derail a bill that seeks to clamp down on illegal Internet gambling.

Cannon says he tried to stop a bad bill that could legalize on-line wagering in his state - one of two that prohibits all forms of gambling.

Supporters of the legislation, which passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate, believe he may have other motives.

''You merely need to look at his record and where his funding comes from and follow the path,'' said Rev. Cynthia Abrams, of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, which backed the bill. ''I think there's a pretty clear connection there.''

Cannon has received $33,850 in political contributions since 2001 from Indian tribes with casinos, lobbyists for the online gambling industry and other opponents of the legislation, according to an analysis of his campaign finance disclosures.

Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, said it is impossible to know if Cannon's opposition to the Internet gambling bill was affected by the contributions, but ''it certainly does not look real good.''

''You have a Utah representative taking gambling money and at the same time saying that he's trying to protect his state from the evils of gambling,'' he said. ''I don't think the two square.''

Critics also note that Cannon's former chief of staff, David Safavian, was a lobbyist whose clients included the Interactive Gaming Council, the National Indian Gaming Association and gaming tribes.

Cannon denies any inconsistency.

''The fact is my position about gambling has been very, very clear since I entered politics,'' he said. ''I oppose gambling. I think it's a pernicious vice. I'd like to eliminate it. We can't eliminate it in today's legal environment, so I want to do the next best thing which is regulate it,'' said Cannon, who is co-sponsoring a bill to create a panel to study regulating Internet gambling.

Cannon said the contributions are in no way tied to the gambling issue and he does not take money from the industry.

The lobbyists who contributed also worked on telecommunications and other issues, and the Indian tribes had issues before the House Resources Committee, on which Cannon serves, and the Western Caucus, which he chairs.

As for Safavian, he also lobbied for telecommunications companies, experience Cannon said proved valuable last Congress as he fought a major telecommunications reform bill.

Safavian left Cannon's staff last year and now holds a top position in the federal government's property management agency. He did not return a phone call to his office.

Daniel Walsh, Safavian's former lobbying partner and college roommate, said he and his firm represent numerous clients - including Napster and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. - and gambling interests happen to be among them.

Lobbying records show it has made up roughly one-third of the firm's business since 2001. The Interactive Gaming Council alone paid the firm $416,000.

''I don't think Chris thinks particularly highly of the industry I represent,'' he said of his gambling clients. ''It's not like I can go in there and say, 'Here's what you can do to help us.'''

Walsh and Cannon both fought the House proposals that sought to prevent credit card companies from processing on-line wagers by U.S. bettors made through off-shore casinos. The goal is to make it impossible for the online casino operators to collect on the wagers.

The Justice Department has said the off-shore operations are havens for money laundering and organized crime.

But Cannon and others are concerned about ''carve-outs'' exempting existing state-licensed gambling outfits from the bill.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, representing the National Association of Attorneys General, testified at a hearing in March that the exceptions would encourage states to use the Internet to sell lottery tickets and off-track betting.

Cannon says if the bill passes, online casinos would spring up and there would be nothing to prevent Utah residents from betting from their home computers, even though state law prohibits gambling.

Supporters say Utah residents can - and likely do - bet online now through off-shore sites, contributing to what has become an unregulated $4.2 billion-a-year industry so addictive it has been called the crack cocaine of gambling.

Cannon stripped the carve-outs from versions of the bill in each of the last two years. The change meant the bill lost the support of members with horse-racing and state-sanctioned gambling in their states, dooming the bill.

Even after he closed the loopholes in May, Cannon voted with Democrats to try to kill the bill - a move Abrams says shows his intent was to kill the bill, not fix it.

That sentiment was echoed as the bill reached the House floor for debate after frustrated sponsors pulled out all of the civil and criminal penalties to keep it from having to go through the Judiciary Committee.

Ohio Republican Rep. Paul Gillmore labeled the efforts to alter the bill ''A wolf in sheep's clothing,'' in a letter to colleagues that included a drawing of a toothy, grinning wolf in a fluffy white coat, banging at a piano that produced dollar signs instead of music notes.

Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who sponsored the bill, called Cannon's amendment a ''poison pill'' meant to bring the bill down.

Cannon again fought the bill, citing his concerns about legalizing gambling in Utah, but the measure passed by a 2-to-1 margin. Sponsors hope the Senate restores the penalties, but its future in that body remains in doubt.


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