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AGA bulks up for online gambling fight

The American Gaming Association (AGA) has brought on a flurry of new staffers and public affairs firms as the battle over Internet gambling heats up.

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Geoff Freeman, the AGA’s president and chief executive, said bulking up in staff and consulting are part of his plan to create a more aggressive casino trade association that can operate outside of the Beltway.

“It's part of a big shift that we are making. We are becoming a more proactive group that is working to define the image of the gaming industry. It's less about legislation and more about defining the image of this industry, not in just Washington but in the states as well,” Freeman told The Hill.

That includes bringing on Jim Messina, President Obama’s campaign manager for his 2012 reelection bid. The trade group has hired the Messina Group to help with grassroots campaigns, including support of online gambling.

“We have hired Messina to work on grassroots initiatives. Online gaming is one of those. Jim is as politically astute as they come and he will be a great resource for us,” Freeman said.

In addition, John Murray, a senior adviser at Purple Strategies and a former deputy chief of staff for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), is working with the AGA. Further, High Lantern Group, another consulting firm, has been retained by the trade group.

On Monday, the AGA also announced that it had hired five new staffers as it revamps the organization.

Sara Rayme, formerly with MGM Resorts International, will be the trade group’s senior vice president of public affairs.

Chaka Burgess comes from pharmaceutical giant Amgen to be the AGA’s vice president of government relations.

Coming from the U.S. Travel Association, Allie Barth will be the AGA’s senior director of communications.

In addition, Elizabeth Cronan will be director of gaming policy and Virginia Hurt Johnson will be general counsel at the AGA.

Freeman took over the AGA on July 1 last year and has looked to shake up the casino lobby. He replaced Frank Fahrenkopf, a former Republican National Committee chairman, who founded the trade group more than 17 years ago.

“This happens every time when someone new takes over a trade association. They want to push out the old guard and bring in new blood,” said a lobbyist who follows online gambling. “Geoff wants to send the message to Capitol Hill and K Street that the trade group will be more proactive and campaign and grassroots-oriented.”

Freeman has had to contend with a divided gaming industry. Major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive of Las Vegas Sands Corp., is pushing back against efforts to legalize online gambling on Capitol Hill and at the state level.

A Justice Department ruling in 2011 found that the Wire Act only banned Internet sports betting, allowing states to legalize Internet gaming. So far, Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey have legalized some form of online gambling, and other states are sure to follow suit.

“They [the AGA] are trying to block any changes to the Wire Act at the federal level and they are going to fight this out state by state,” said one individual close to the gaming industry.

The AGA has also expanded its board of directors recently, adding Wynn Resorts, Station Casinos and Churchill Downs Inc. last month.

Brett Hale, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Churchill Downs, which owns race courses and casinos, said his company plans “to move aggressively” into Internet gambling. Las Vegas Sands also has an executive on the AGA’s board.

“It's certainly a delicate situation because Sheldon is a political force and his view is well-known on Internet gambling. It's going to be tricky for Geoff to navigate those waters because Sheldon is so politically active,” Hale said.

Critics like Adelson argue that online gaming will attract crime and harm children. At a congressional hearing last month, Andrew Abboud, senior vice president of government relations and community development at Las Vegas Sands, said the Internet is “more dangerous than ever.”

Adelson is pushing Capitol Hill to take action to stop online gambling, and draft legislation to rewrite the Wire Act has circulated among lobbyists. Part of the effort also includes a new group, the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, which is led by former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), ex-New York Gov. George Pataki (R) and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb (D).

“The FBI has said already that there is a definite threat there. It could be used for fraud and money-laundering,” Lincoln said. “Our hope is that Congress calls for a timeout so they can closely consider this issue.”

Billionaire Adelson has been willing to throw millions into political races but neither of his favored presidential candidates last election — Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney — won the White House. Online gaming supporters hope the casino tycoon doesn’t improve on his track record.

“If money equaled success, there would be a President Gingrich right now,” said the lobbyist.