Lobbyist's gambling letter surfaces in competitive Hillsborough Senate primary

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By Steve Bousquet

Published July 23, 2012


TALLAHASSEE — As voters in suburban Tampa prepare to nominate a state Senate candidate, the issue of gambling is prompting allegations of campaign dirty tricks.

A gambling lobbyist wrote a fundraising letter on behalf of former Senate President Tom Lee of Brandon, but Lee calls the move "a hatchet job" designed to inaccurately paint him as pro-gambling in his Aug. 14 primary battle with Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview.

The race between Burgin and Lee is being fought in east Hills­borough, an area with many social conservatives who oppose gambling, which both candidates also say they oppose.

Gambling lobbyist Marc Dunbar wrote the letter to his clients in which he praised Lee as a "true champion for the industry" who as a senator a decade ago teamed with liberal Democrats such as former Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, "a good friend" of gambling, to support racetracks, poker rooms and voter-approved slot machines.

With Lee back in the Senate, Dunbar wrote, Florida can be "a true high stakes commercial gambling market" similar to "Las Vegas and Macau." A Hills­borough County resident who donated money to Burgin's campaign, Patricia McClure, gave the letter to the Times/Herald.

"It's an obvious hatchet job on me," Lee said. "Marc Dunbar has an ax to grind. Tallahassee is an incubator for hubris. These people have long since forgotten about the interests of their clients."

Dunbar declined to comment, other than to defend the June 22 letter. In it, he repeatedly used the word "gambling," which the industry usually avoids in favor of "gaming." The lobbyist told his clients to send checks to Lee, but three weeks later, none has.

Dunbar is a shareholder in the firm of Pennington Moore Wilkinson Bell & Dunbar. He's the son of Pete Dunbar, a lawyer and lobbyist and former House Republican leader from Pinellas County.

Lee and Marc Dunbar had a serious confrontation in their pasts and haven't spoken since.

Seven years ago, Dunbar arranged a $48,000 trip for four GOP legislators to fly on a private jet to Canada, courtesy of Magna Entertainment Corp., a Dunbar client looking to expand its gambling operations in Florida.

The Republican Party of Florida reported the trip as a party fundraiser — a decision Lee criticized, citing a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers at the time. Dunbar and the legislators were cleared of any wrongdoing.

As a senator from 1996 to 2006, Lee did favor some gambling bills, such as the expansion of poker rooms at financially ailing racetracks. But along with then-Gov. Jeb Bush, he generally opposed its expansion and advocated repeal of the voter referendum legalizing slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Lee says he is refusing to accept gambling money in his current campaign. But gambling money helps him indirectly, because he's backed by Senate leaders who control party donations, some from gambling interests such as Genting, which has given $486,000 to the state GOP in this election cycle. Party money is being funneled to electioneering groups for pro-Lee mailings and TV ads.

Armed with Dunbar's letter, Burgin hopes to convince socially conservative Republicans that Lee is the gambling industry's favorite, and cited her 2009 vote against the expansion of casino gambling on Seminole tribal lands.

Of Dunbar's official-looking letter, seemingly addressed to a client in Las Vegas, Burgin asked: "How can it be a fabrication?"

While in the Senate, Lee often railed against the power of lobbyists and their money, even as he sought their support and money for his campaigns.

He led the charge to force lobbyists to disclose their fees, and he insisted that contributions to lawmaker-controlled political slush funds be disclosed within five days on websites.

Lee once sarcastically described the area near the Capitol where lobbyists gather for cocktails as "Tallahassee's red-light district," a remark that did not go unnoticed. His criticism left a trail of resentment among some lobbyists with long memories.

"It's having its effect," Lee said of Dunbar's letter. "Your enemies accumulate in politics. I get that."

"Now many of you will recall that Tom and I have had our differences over the years," Dunbar wrote. "This is not the time, however, to allow prior tensions to blur a clear choice."

The winner of the Burgin-Lee primary will face Democrat Elizabeth Belcher in November, but the seat, Senate District 24, is heavily Republican.