The Assembly's new contract with Washington, D.C., lobby firm Pace LLP is raising hackles among some people involved in California's debate over legalizing Internet gambling.
That's because the same firm the Assembly hired also represents the Morongo Band of Mission Indians -- a sponsor of one of two competing bills on Internet gambling. The tribe is backing Sen. Lou Correa's Senate Bill 40, which would make online poker legal in California -- and could enrich the tribes and card rooms that get to operate the sites.
Many other tribes oppose the bill, saying it doesn't give them a chance to get into the Internet poker business. They support online gambling but want a bill that gives more tribes the opportunity for a piece of the pie. And they're the ones concerned about the Assembly hiring Morongo's federal lobbyist.
In May, the Assembly signed a $15,000-a-month contract with Pace to represent it before the federal government. Last month, Pace's managing partner Jim Wise was in Sacramento to testify at a hearing on Internet gambling. At the Senate Governmental Organization Committee hearing on July 12, Wise sat next to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who represents the Morongo tribe. Records show that Morongo has employed Wise's firm for over a decade, at a current cost of $280,000 a year.
David Quintana, a Sacramento lobbyist for the California Tribal Business Alliance -- which opposes SB 40 -- said it will be difficult for the tribes to get a fair hearing before the Assembly now that the lower house is employing Morongo's federal lobbyist.
"It really concerns me that the state Assembly decides to hire a firm at which the partner testified on behalf of the Morongo card room deal," Quintana said. "Its advice to the Assembly is going to be in (Morongo's) favor."
Wise said he understands why some people might perceive a conflict, but that the terms of his contract with Morongo avoid one.
"Under our contract, we don't do anything in the state. We only handle federal affairs," Wise said.
He said his testimony before the Senate committee last month was for informational purposes, not lobbying. He told the committee he thought the federal government is likely to approve legislation on Internet gambling.
"That was not an advocacy position whatsoever," Wise said. "It was a status update as to the likelihood of the feds doing something."
Robin Swanson, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, said the Assembly's contract with Wise wouldn't prevent it from fairly evaluating bills on Internet gambling.
"Lobbyists always have multiple clients, and if there's ever a conflict of interest, they can remove themselves from the situation," Swanson said. "That hasn't been the case thus far, and we don't expect it to be."
Photo credit: Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (left) and lobbyist Jim Wise (right), managing partner of Pace LLP. Screen grab from California Senate Television broadcast of Senate Governmental Organization Committee hearing on July 12, 2011.