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Gambling lobbyist Dunbar praises Tom Lee, who fires back

Tallahassee gambling lobbyist Marc Dunbar wrote a fund-raising letter to his clients on the letterhead of his law firm (Pennington Moore Wilkinson Bell & Dunbar), urging them to support former Sen. Tom Lee in his Republican Senate primary against Rep. Rachel Burgin in East Hillsborough's District 24.

Calling the race "a clear choice between a pro-gambling moderate (Lee) and a stark anti-gambling conservative (Burgin)," Dunbar extolled the many occasions in which Lee came to the rescue of the parimutuel industry, including siding with Democrats Steve Geller and Debbie Wasserman Schultz to implement voter-approved slot machines in South Florida. Lee was Senate president when that occurred in 2005.

Dunbar is an astute lobbyist who has to know that Senate District 24 has many church-going social conservatives who oppose gambling and that being lumped in with liberals such as Geller and Wasserman Schultz is probably not the ideal way to garner Republican votes (read the Dunbar letter below).  

A closer look also reveals a troubled history between Lee and Dunbar. In 2005, three senators went off on a $48,000, two-day, all-expense-paid trip to Canada, courtesy of Magna Entertainment Corp., a gambling company, whose lobbyist was Marc Dunbar. When the Republican Party stepped in to pay for the trip and spare the senators an ethics problem, Lee ordered an investigation (story is here).

Sens. Mike Bennett, Dennis Jones and the late Jim King took that trip, as did then-Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg.

Asked to comment on Dunbar's letter, Lee called Dunbar "a political operative to the Rachel Burgin campaign," and said: "The letter is clearly designed to become an instrument of the Burgin campaign in an effort to mislead the voters about the expansion of gambling in Florida. I do not support the expansion of gambling in Florida."

Burgin said she's the only one in the race who's completely opposed to gambling, and cited her no vote in 2009 against the deal that allowed casino gambling on Seminole Indian reservation casinos that cost her a committee assignment. Lee fired back that Burgin has gotten money from gambling interests, the Hartman & Tyner parimutuel firm and Save Our Internet Access (internet cafes).

"You can't take away a voting record," Burgin said. "How can it (the letter) be a fabrication?"

Geller, a lawyer in Broward County who was a staunch supporter of gambling interests, described Lee as "ambivalent" on gambling issues. But he did recall that Lee played a role in passing a 2003 bill that expanded cardroom operations at Florida tracks -- one of the bills Dunbar cites in his letter.  

Lee says the tipoff that Dunbar's letter is phony is the lobbyist's repeated use of the word "gambling," when the industry has long preferred the less sinister-sounding word "gaming." Dunbar stands behind the letter but he declined comment. Another mystery: Lee has been raising money for nearly a month, but his campaign report shows nomoney from Dunbar or his clients. Yet Dunbar's June 22 letter says: "Tom needs your support now!"

"This is just the latest creative and clever attempt to discredit me because of my stance against public corruption in Tallahassee," Lee said. "Marc Dunbar was on that plane." Lee says he'll refuse any campaign money from gambling interests in his campaign. 

However, Lee is a leadership-backed Senate candidate, and the parimutuel industry is a big contributor to political slush funds controlled by Sens. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, both of whom want Lee to win. Burgin notes that the electrioneering group that is most strongly supporting Lee, the Liberty Foundation of Florida, lists the same street address as Rhett O'Doski, a lobbyist who is representing MGM Resorts International Inc., operator of Las Vegas casinos. 

-- Steve Bousquet