Politics & Government

Senator backing casinos won't name his clients in horse industry

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, talks about a bill during the special legislative session in Frankfort, Ky., Friday, May 28, 2010.  (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, talks about a bill during the special legislative session in Frankfort, Ky., Friday, May 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke) ASSOCIATED PRESS

FRANKFORT — State Sen. Damon Thayer, who is expected to file a casino gambling bill in coming days that could bring big bucks to Kentucky's horse industry, collected at least $208,835 in consulting fees from the industry during 2010 and part of 2011, according to court records.

Thayer, R-Georgetown, runs Thayer Communications and Consulting out of his house. According to his firm's Web site, Thayer founded it in 2007 to serve "companies in the equine industry" after he spent two decades in executive jobs in horse racing, including a seven-year stint at Turfway Park, a racetrack in Florence.

From his consulting firm, Thayer earned $132,835 in 2010 and $76,000 during the first eight months of 2011, according to an asset disclosure he signed Sept. 12 in his divorce records. In an interview Monday, Thayer said those income figures "sound in the ballpark."

By comparison, Thayer said in court that he makes $35,000 a year as a part-time senator.

Thayer declined Monday to identify his clients or explain whether they would gain financially from casino gambling. His annual financial disclosure statement at the Legislative Ethics Commission does not require him to name his clients, he said.

"I'll have to think about it," Thayer said.

The Legislative Ethics Commission requires lawmakers to identify clients if they employ lobbyists at the General Assembly, as several racetracks do, including Churchill Downs and Keeneland. Thayer's 2011 financial disclosure form does not list any such clients. On Monday, he said nobody who pays him has lobbyists at the legislature.

Opponents of casino gambling pledged to use Thayer's consulting fees against him in public debate unless he explains who in the horse industry pays him to do what.

"If Senator Thayer is the sponsor of the casino bill, then I absolutely will file an ethics complaint against him," said the Rev. Hershael York of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort.

"This just smells," York said. "There's no question he has very close ties to the horse industry. It's hard to see how none of his clients will profit from this bill he's about to file. And I don't think it's unreasonable for us to ask him to explain this to us."

Thayer's bill, which is expected to take the form of a proposed constitutional amendment, has the potential to be a windfall for Kentucky's racetracks and horse farms.

Under previous casino proposals pushed by Gov. Steve Beshear, with whom Thayer is collaborating, casinos would be located exclusively at racetracks. The state's taxes on casino revenue would be shared with the horse industry, largely through fattened racing purses.

Racing interests this month released a study that projected $164 million in tax collections going to the horse industry in the first year of casinos.

Thayer, co-chairman of a legislative subcommittee on horse farms, long has promoted the horse industry. He helped establish the Kentucky Breeders' Incentive Fund, which has distributed $51.2 million to breeders of winning horses since 2006, funded by a sales tax on stud fees. He also championed instant racing, a new form of electronic gambling on previously run races, which is bringing in millions of dollars at Kentucky Downs, a Franklin racetrack.

While Thayer, 44, never has hidden his outside work as a horse industry consultant, he also has provided little detail about it. The Web site for his firm lists a few of his representative clients from recent years, including several Central Kentucky horse farms; the Claiming Crown annual racing event, which was held in 2011 at a Churchill Downs-owned track and casino in New Orleans; and Pinnacle Race Course in Michigan.

Since the casino bill potentially involves billions of dollars, it requires the greatest possible transparency, said Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky, which opposes expanded gambling.

"We think every legislator who plans on even voting for this bill needs to give full disclosure of their personal and professional involvement in the horse industry, and particularly with any entity that stands to gain from casinos," Cothran said.

Thayer also could face questions on the campaign trail this spring. Ricky Hostetler, a Georgetown Republican and Tea Party activist, said Monday that he would challenge Thayer in the May 22 primary. Hostetler said he had looked into Thayer's consulting business out of curiosity and would like to know who pays his district's senator.

"I'm sure this will be a concern we raise," said Hostetler, an electrical contractor.