Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III was decidedly cool about the prospect of gambling in Maryland back when he was a state delegate, but he warmed up to the idea in February as a county-commissioned study picked National Harbor as an ideal spot for a casino.
"National Harbor is the perfect location for this high-end $1 billion entertainment complex," Mr. Baker said, citing what his office called a comprehensive evaluation of the issue.
But months later, new questions are emerging over ties between the consulting firm hired by Prince George's to study the area casino market and Gaylord Entertainment, which developed the National Harbor complex.
To analyze the local market for gambling, county officials hired a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm called Business Research and Economic Advisors. The firm lists Gaylord Entertainment among its clients on its website.
Marta H. Mossburg, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute who has raised concerns about the ties, called it a "huge conflict" for the county to commission an independent report from the same consultant that has done work for National Harbor's developer.
Phone calls to the consulting firm were not returned Wednesday. A spokesman for Mr. Baker defended the hiring of Business Research and Economic Advisors.
"BREA has tremendous expertise and experience analyzing gambling in the mid-Atlantic region, so it makes sense that companies, gambling commissions and state governments looked to them to conduct gambling studies in the past," said Scott L. Peterson, a spokesman for Mr. Baker.
"This is an important and complex topic, and we wanted to have the most reliable analysis we could find from an industry expert."
The decision on allowing gambling at National Harbor is up to state officials and voters, not Mr. Baker, but he has lobbied for the idea and is seen as a key voice of support.
Last week, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Maryland Department of Legislative Services said the state could support another casino in Prince George's County. But those plans were dealt a setback Wednesday as a state panel studying whether to expand gambling was unable to reach a consensus.
Back in February, Mr. Baker said he envisioned "a world-class destination facility that features gambling, live shows, dining and lodging" that would create nearly 5,000 jobs.
In its report that same month, the consulting firm study reported that gambling at National Harbor, which is located just across the Potomac River from Alexandria, would generate more money and visits compared with Rosecroft Raceway.
Rosecroft, a harness racing track, is located about five miles from National Harbor and reopened last year under new owners, Penn National Gaming, as part of a push for slots at the track.
Citing its professional judgment, the firm said National Harbor was "by far the superior location" compared with Rosecroft Raceway.
But Rosecroft backers disagree. The Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners' Association, a trade group of owners, trainers, drivers, grooms and others in the standardbred industry in Maryland, also has raised questions about the consulting firm's conclusions.
This week, the trade group announced that it had filed a motion in Prince George's Circuit Court seeking an injunction after it failed to get response to an open records request with the county. The group sought a host of gambling-related documents from the county government, including information about the consulting firm study.
"Our biggest fear is that these documents, every email personal schedule and phone logs, will be destroyed in an attempt to cover up what could be improprieties by National Harbor and county officials," Sharon Roberts, executive director of the association, said in a statement.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Ms. Roberts also said the group had concerns about the consulting firm's ties to Gaylord Entertainment, saying the study leaned strongly to National Harbor.
Ms. Mossburg referenced the ties between Gaylord and the consulting firm in a column in the Baltimore Sun this week that called on state officials to take more time before deciding on gambling at National Harbor.
She said Andrew Moody, president of the consulting firm hired by Prince George's, had told her that firm worked for Gaylord back in 2004 on a report about National Harbor.
He said the firm also had worked for Penn National Gaming, the company trying to get slots for Rosecroft, though that assignment involved an out-of-state location, Ms. Mossburg said.
The consulting firm does not list Penn National as a client on its website, but has Gaylord Entertainment as one of three clients listed in the casino and hospitality industry.
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