A former Kentucky state lawmaker who went to prison for taking gambling-related bribes in the 1990s' Operation BOPTROT scandal is working behind the scenes this winter for House Speaker Greg Stumbo's slots bill.
Former Rep. Jerry Bronger, D-Louisville, met with Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, at the Capitol on Jan. 15 and discussed Stumbo's bill to allow electronic slot machines at horse racetracks. Bronger said he strongly supports Stumbo's bill and agreed to reach out to his old friends in the legislature and the racetrack industry to promote it.
In an interview Monday, Bronger said his interest is purely as a politically savvy Kentuckian who supports horse racing, and he is not a paid representative for Stumbo or anyone else.
"I told him, I came out and said to him, 'Greg, the only thing about this is, can you get the Senate? I don't think you're gonna get the Senate,'" said Bronger, now 73 and retired. "I told him all I could do is keep talking, y'know, and try to get everybody, try to see everybody that's down there who I know."
Bronger once was chairman of the powerful House committee that oversaw state licensing of the racetracks. He pleaded guilty in 1992 to taking $2,000 in bribes from Bill McBee, a former state lawmaker turned lobbyist, to block a proposal the racetracks opposed. The measure would have prohibited tracks from simulcasting and taking bets on races involving different breeds than the tracks ran live. Bronger served 10 months in federal prison.
The undercover FBI investigation known as BOPTROT rocked Frankfort in the 1990s and exposed 15 current or former lawmakers who sold their votes, mostly on gambling and racing legislation. Then-House Speaker Don Blandford was among the politicians sent to prison with Bronger.
Opponents of Stumbo's slots bill on Monday called it "a bad omen" that the new House speaker was meeting with Bronger.
"I would think the last thing this bill's supporters would want is to be haunted by the ghost of gambling bills past, particularly the bills that led to the BOPTROT scandal," said Martin Cothran, spokesman for Say No to Casinos. "With friends like this, the bill doesn't need any enemies."
Stumbo's general counsel, Pierce Whites, confirmed that Stumbo and Bronger met at the Capitol last month, and "it is entirely possible" the slots bill came up during their conversation, Whites said.
However, Stumbo and Bronger are simply longtime friends who were catching up with each other, Whites said. Anything that Bronger has offered to do for the slots bill is his own idea, Whites said.
"I think Jerry Bronger is just a private citizen who thinks this is a good bill. That is the extent of it as far as the speaker's office is aware," Whites said. "There is no official, or indeed unofficial, role for Jerry Bronger to be playing on behalf of the speaker."
Asked whether Stumbo is uncomfortable with someone convicted in BOPTROT making calls for his slots bill, Whites said: "I understand that a cautious or a timid politician certainly would have said, 'Oh please, leave me out of this.' But Greg Stumbo is very faithful to his friends. He has known Mr. Bronger and his family for a long, long time, and no, he would never say 'Don't speak out on what you believe in.'"
Later on Monday, Whites called back to "clarify" his earlier comments. Stumbo does not recall discussing the slots bill with Bronger during their conversation, Whites said.
Whites called again hours later to say that Stumbo emphatically denies having spoken to Bronger about the slots bill.
On Monday, Bronger said he grew up in the racing industry, had relatives employed in racing and feels a strong empathy for the future of racing in Kentucky. It's obvious that the state's racetracks need expanded gambling in order to compete with the full-fledged casinos operating in states north of the Kentucky border, Bronger said.
"When you see every damn car going in these places, 90 percent of them are from Kentucky," Bronger said. "You see all these people going over there to Indiana and to Illinois and to Ohio to gamble. Aren't we kind of nuts to not be getting in on this somehow?"
Bronger said he intends to talk to people he knows in the legislature who will be crucial to deciding the slots bill's fate, including Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who has said many times that he is opposed to any expansion of gambling.
"I'm gonna talk to David," Bronger said. "I know David Williams really well. I've got a couple of friends down David's way, and I can talk to them and see if they can't change his mind at all."
In a prepared statement, Williams replied: "I can't imagine why Speaker Stumbo, if he indeed has, would engage someone else to speak to me about anything. The Speaker and I speak frequently, and I hope he can be candid with me about any issue in front of the General Assembly."