Bluegrass Conspiracy: Steve Beshear's Donors had Equine, Casino Ties
"... The Bluegrass Freedom Fund, an independent campaign group, raised $3,150,000, of which 70 percent -- more than $2.2 million -- came from gambling and equine interests ... Lane's End Farm owner Will Farish, formerly President George W. Bush's British ambassador, said Friday evening that he gave because he trusts Farmer. ... "
TV ADS FOR ETHICS REFORM HELPED BESHEAR
By Janet Patton And Ryan Alessi
FRANKFORT -- Casinos, racetracks and horse breeders largely bankrolled TV ads on ethics reform that helped elect Gov. Steve Beshear, who ran on a platform of expanding gambling.
The Bluegrass Freedom Fund, an independent campaign group, raised $3,150,000, of which 70 percent -- more than $2.2 million -- came from gambling and equine interests, according to tax documents filed just before midnight Thursday.
Other contributors to the fund, which is known as a "527" because of its IRS designation, include unions and other Democratic backers. Such funds have no contribution limit, and donors can give even after they have maxed out other state and federal contributions.
Several donors also gave heavily to another Democratic fund, Kentucky Victory 2007.
Beshear said Friday night the donations will have no bearing on who gets one of up to a dozen casinos.
"The bill we're working on to present will have some licenses designated for our racetracks, assuming they can qualify ... and some free-standing casinos that will be totally open to competition," Beshear said. He plans to present a bill in the next two weeks.
He said no one from his campaign was involved in the Bluegrass Freedom Fund. Beshear said former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Tracy Farmer, a strong Beshear backer, was not involved in his campaign after the primary.
Beshear said they severed ties after Farmer told him of plans to form the Bluegrass Freedom Fund.
"I'm sure they were interested in our campaign partly at least because we were interested in getting this issue (expanded gambling) on the ballot," Beshear said. "We had no connection with their organization, because legally we can't."
Beshear met with representatives of Kentucky racetracks and the horse industry on Jan. 9, but the governor did not discuss the fund contributions.
He said he has not met with anyone with specific casino ties since taking office, but his task force has met with Bill Yung, the Fort Mitchell-based casino and hotel owner who gave $1 million to the fund -- by far the biggest contribution.
Beshear said he has turned down multiple requests to meet with representatives of the Las Vegas Sands, who last month addressed a House panel looking at expanded gambling.
"I don't want anybody in the public to feel that anybody has got an inside track on this," Beshear said.
Beshear's chief of staff, Jim Cauley, said that their bill "might make half these people mad. ... We're trying to come together with a bill that makes sense for the people of Kentucky. Whether or not it makes sense for these people is not really in our interest, nor do we care."
Keeneland President Nick Nicholson said they contributed, through Phoenix Capital, at Farmer's request because "we just thought it was a good idea."
He said that they weren't involved in running and didn't know specifically what its ads would target. "We knew ethics reform was probably going to be the single major issue, but we were not promised that," Nicholson said.
Lane's End Farm owner Will Farish, formerly President George W. Bush's British ambassador, also said Friday evening that he gave because he trusts Farmer.
"As he put it, the purpose of the organization was to promote social issues and economic development in Kentucky," Farish said from Florida. He said he supports alternative gaming at racetrack but has no interest in owning a casino.
It's unclear whether the Bluegrass Freedom Fund will continue to operate, either on behalf of ethics reform legislation or another issue such as a push for casino gambling.
Ron Geary, owner of Ellis Park in Henderson, said last month that he would like to see it continue.
"I think if they think it could be helpful ... in doing whatever they think is appropriate," Geary said.
Achim Bergmann, consultant for the Bluegrass Freedom Fund, said the ethics reform bill passed on Wednesday by the Kentucky House "is proof the agenda of the Bluegrass Freedom Fund has overwhelming support among Kentuckians, Republican and Democrat alike, and that the issues work that we did this year and last year is achieving success."
But Republican lawmakers said Friday that the fund, which focused on former Gov. Ernie Fletcher's state hiring indictments, appears to have an agenda tied more to gambling than ethics.
"It confirms the suspicions that many of us had about the funding of Democrat candidates," said Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown and the GOP's House floor leader. "In my opinion, the expanded gaming issue, with every passing day, will be harder and harder to get passed in the legislature and that may be a knockout blow once all this is exposed."
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said there had long been rumors that the fund was backed by pro-gambling interests.
"The fact that you have individuals donating up to $1 million puts in serious question whether they are after good government or not," Williams said.
Rep. Rob Wilkey, D-Scottsville and the Democratic House whip, said he expects casino opponents to make political hay out of the donations as a way to torpedo the eventual bill.
"I don't think that's relevant," he said, noting that the House has been vetting all sides of the issue of whether to allow casino gambling in a series of committee meetings. "The ball is now solidly in the court of the legislature, and that money did not come to the legislature. And I do not think it will influence the legislature or the legislature's decisions."
Contributors to Bluegrass Freedom Fund
HORSE AND CASINO INTERESTS
• $1 million from William Yung, president of Northern Kentucky-based development company Columbia Sussex, which owns several casinos and hotels, including the embattled Tropicana Hotel and Resort in Atlantic City and the Aztar in Evansville, Ind.
• $250,000 from Churchill Downs Inc., the Louisville racetrack's parent, that is looking for a casino.
• $250,000 from Phoenix Capital, a limited liability company formed in August by Keeneland, the Lexington thoroughbred track.
• $250,000 from EP Acquisitions in Louisville, which is owned by Ronald Geary, who bought Ellis Park in Henderson and also is interested in casinos.
• $125,000 from Turfway Park in Florence, which is co-owned by Keeneland and Harrah's.
• $60,000 from Lexington Trots Breeders Association, which owns The Red Mile harness racing track.
• $50,000 from Hideout of Lincoln County, LLC, of Palm Desert, Calif., owned by R.D. Hubbard, who has apparently recently dropped out of the Sprint Racing Partners seeking a quarter horse racetrack in London, Ky.
• $50,000 from Edward Allred, owner of Los Alamitos Race Course in California, who has also dropped out of Sprint.
• $50,000 from Will Farish of Versailles, who owns Lane's End Farm.
• $50,000 from Tracy Farmer, the Midway horse farm owner who staunchly backed Gov. Steve Beshear.
• $25,000 from Bruce Rimbo, president of Hubbard's Ruidoso Downs quarter horse track in New Mexico, and who is still part of Sprint Racing.
• $25,000 from Paul Blanchard, owner of the Downs of Albuquerque, who also has dropped out of Sprint.
• $10,000 from H. Greg Goodman, o
wner of Mount Brilliant Farm in Lexington.
• $10,000 from John Oxley, a horse breeder and owner from Tulsa, Okla.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY GROUPS
• $600,000 from the Democratic Governors Association in Washington, D.C.
• $200,000 from AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the national public employee union.
• $50,000 from SEIU PEA International, the Washington D.C.-based Service Employees International Union.
• $25,000 from the International Union of Operating Engineers in Washington, D.C.
• $15,000 from the Jefferson County Teachers Association in Louisville.
• $5,000 from the Carpenters' Legislative Improvement Committee in Washington, D.C.
• $5,000 from the Plumbers Pipe Fitters & M.E.S. Local 392 PAC in Cincinnati.
• $20,000 from the American Association for Justice in Washington, D.C.
• $25,000 from the Kentucky Justice Association, Inc.