Bonus or bribe?Jury to decide

Jul 26, 2005 9:57 AM

Payoffs to politicians for favors is a practice that has existed for time immemorial and sometimes, not often, they are prosecuted. Witness the recent strip club activities in San Diego.

So it was not too surprising that Rhode Island decided to prosecute the alleged bribery attempt involving the law firm of the then House Speaker. After all, just a few months earlier the mayor of the state’s capital city, Providence, was charged and convicted of accepting bribes and now spends his days making vehicle registration tags.

But the case involving officials of the state’s only greyhound racetrack has as many detractors as it has supporters. That is probably why a jury failed in February to come to a decision and the case is being retried. What the jury must decide is whether a proposed payment to the Speaker’s law firm was a bribe to influence a decision that would place more gaming machines at the track or whether the payment was a "performance bonus."

In the early 1990’s, Dan Bucci, whose background was in horse racing, found himself as the manager of a dying dog track. Actually, the approaching demise of Lincoln Greyhound Track in Lincoln, Rhode Island, merely replicated the financial condition of most dog tracks in America.

To those who inquired about the state of Lincoln’s business, Bucci didn’t hesitate to reply, "Without VLT’s we’ll be ready to padlock the joint."

His concern was short-lived. Shortly afterward, the Rhode Island legislature authorized the video lottery terminals for both Lincoln and the Newport jai alai.

A year later, Bucci was telling all, "It’s amazing the amount of money these machines bring in."

The additional revenue not only helped the balance sheet of British owner Wembley Plc but it also boosted racing purses to the highest level in the U.S., thus insuring the best racing dogs available.

As the years passed, it became obvious to Bucci and his bosses that a "racino" expansion was in order. Adding as many as 3,000 machines became management’s goal.

It was at this time, prosecutors contend, that Bucci conspired with Wembley CEO Nigel Potter to offer a $4 million bribe to the law firm of then Speaker John Harwood to insure that the track received authorization for the additional machines.

The offer was refused by Harwood’s law partner Dan McKinnon. The firm was not charged in the case.

So now the jurors in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the case was moved to avoid trial prejudice, must decide whether Bucci actually was offering a performance bonus or whether the offer was a bribe.

The answer should be known within the next few days.