HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

Senate President Pro Temp Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento speaks with Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens during session in the Senate chambers in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday, March 11, 2013.

Las Vegas casino hosts fundraiser for California senator on eve of key vote

Published: Tuesday, May. 21, 2013 - 7:33 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 21, 2013 - 3:45 pm

A Las Vegas casino that stands to make millions if the California Legislature approves a gambling compact for a Fresno-area Indian tribe is hosting a fundraiser this weekend for a state senator who is about to vote on the deal.

The fundraiser to benefit Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and the Latino Caucus Leadership PAC involves about eight Sacramento lobbyists who are flying to Las Vegas to attend an Ultimate Fighting Championship match Saturday and stay overnight at the swanky Red Rock Hotel.

Station Casinos, which owns the Red Rock, and its sister company Zuffa, which owns the mixed-martial-arts fighting league, have donated the hotel rooms, food for a reception and tickets to the fight - a gift of about $5,000, said Dan Weitzman, a political fundraiser who organized the event.

The Las Vegas-based casino company is lobbying hard to get the Legislature to approve a compact allowing the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians to open a casino along Highway 99 in Madera, more than 35 miles from the mountainous hamlet where tribal members live.

The deal calls for Station Casinos to operate the 2,000-slot machine facility for the first seven years and take 30 percent of its profits, according to a Station Casinos report to investors.

The state Assembly approved the compact earlier this month, passing it by a single vote. Lara and the rest of the California Senate could vote on it as soon as Friday.

While it is common practice for interest groups to make campaign contributions to politicians deciding the fate of their business deals, the timing of this fundraiser - and the high stakes of this decision - are raising criticism of California's campaign finance laws.

"You can't blame Ricardo Lara for playing by the rules as they exist. The problem is that the rules allow any legislator of either party to raise huge amounts of money in direct proximity to a vote on the donor's favored bill," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Schnur was in Sacramento recently advocating for a ban on political fundraising while the Legislature is in session.

"This is a perfect example of why the rules need to be changed," he said, "so voters can at least have confidence that legislation is being decided on its merits, and not as a result of a large check."

Interest groups are paying $3,000 each to send representatives to Las Vegas to spend the weekend with Lara, who sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

Each donation includes receptions before and after the fight, tickets to the fight between Cain Velasquez and Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, and one night of "Five Star Accommodations," the invitation says.

Lara did not respond to The Bee's requests for comment and was not on the Senate floor during its session Monday.

His fundraiser, Weitzman, said that the Las Vegas event has been nearly a year in the making and that the timing so close to the North Fork vote is a coincidence.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg dismissed the idea that Lara's vote on the compact could be influenced by the casino's contribution to his campaign.

"I have full confidence in Senator Lara and any colleague's ability to differentiate between who they raise money from and how they weigh in on important public policy decisions," Steinberg said.

The Sacramento Democrat said his caucus will gather today to discuss the North Fork compact.

"The key frame is understanding the connection between the land where the casino is sought to be built and the history of the tribe," Steinberg said.

The Senate's vote on the North Fork Rancheria's compact is a crucial one in an approval process that has been under way for several years. The tribe is going through a rarely used bureaucratic process called a "two part determination" to take new land into trust for its casino.

Critics say the North Fork compact amounts to "off-reservation" gambling and will set a precedent allowing other California tribes to do the same. Supporters say the casino would be located on land to which the tribe has historic ties, and that few other tribes are in similar circumstances.

The federal government approved North Fork's arrangement in 2011. Gov. Jerry Brown gave it his blessing last year, saying it would provide economic development to an impoverished tribe, and negotiated the details in a compact. If both houses of the Legislature vote in favor of the compact, it goes back to the federal government for final approval.

Both sides of the debate have poured money into the California Capitol, giving campaign cash and lobbying legislators.

In the last year and a half, Station Casinos has spent roughly $250,000 on lobbying in the state, mostly on compacts for the North Fork and Graton tribes.

In 2012, Station Casinos gave more than $72,000 in political contributions, including $50,000 to the state Democratic Party, $6,500 to Steinberg's lieutenant governor campaign committee and $5,951 worth of Las Vegas hotel rooms for a fundraiser for Sen. Kevin de León's ballot measure committee.

The company is owned by brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who also own the Ultimate Fighting Championship company known as Zuffa. It, too, is a big player in California politics.

Since Zuffa hired Sacramento lobbyist Darius Anderson last April, it has spent more than $172,000 on lobbying. That includes $5,500 worth of tickets for lawmakers to attend a fight in February.

In 2012, Zuffa gave $120,000 in campaign contributions to support Proposition 30, the Democratic Party and various legislative candidates. It beat back a bill last year that sought to create more oversight when fighters sign contracts with companies like Zuffa.

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.

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