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August 31, 2015

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Poker Players Alliance gets behind Shelley Berkley

Shelley Berkley

Shelley Berkley

Dean Heller

Dean Heller

WASHINGTON — As chief Democratic sponsor of an online poker bill, Rep. Shelley Berkley is stumping hard for poker players. And it appears they, though more quietly, are pushing hard for her as she begins her run for U.S. Senate.

Last week, the Poker Players Alliance held a fundraiser for Berkley in Washington, D.C. — just two days before Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas introduced House Resolution 2366, the bill that aims to legalize the bank transactions necessary to make bets on Internet-based poker games.

The event “was set long before Mr. Barton came to me and said, ‘I’m going to be dropping this bill,’ ” Berkley said.

Indeed, members of the alliance have been on the guest list for past Berkley events, including when alliance Executive Director John Pappas attended a breakfast for Berkley thrown last month by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, where donations ranged from $1,000 to $2,500 a head.

But the group’s focus at this stage in the race is noteworthy.

The Poker Players Alliance isn’t the chief lobbying arm of the gaming industry, but on the subject of online poker, it leads the pack. It has poured more than $3.7 million into lobbying the 111th Congress, mostly on this issue, and making campaign donations to candidates, including both Berkley and, should she win the Democratic nomination, her Republican opponent, Sen. Dean Heller.

Indictments elsewhere in the online gaming world have made the alliance one of the few names in the business that hasn’t been tainted in the past few months by allegations of operating illegally.

All of that serves to make its donations significant, and although campaign finance reports for the second quarter aren’t yet available, it appears the alliance is favoring Berkley over Heller — who at least doesn’t appear to have been the recipient of any fundraising ventures yet.

“We don’t comment on our political giving,” Pappas said.

But Berkley’s confirmation of the event, and its sponsor, suggests that the alliance is trying to give her an early push: a gesture that raises questions about whether the nonpartisan group plans to back Berkley over Heller.

It isn’t that it is filled with Democrats. Pappas, a native of Arizona, worked for conservative Republican John Shadegg for six years before joining the alliance. And one of its highest-profile lobbyists on Capitol Hill, especially on the subject of online poker, is former Nevada Congressman Jon Porter, a Republican who is close with Heller.

Berkley has always enjoyed broad political support in the gaming industry.

She’s from Las Vegas, after all, the one city in the country that stands to gain most, by virtue of the licensing process, from a legalization of online poker.

The Poker Players Alliance appears to have a relationship with Heller’s office. According to Heller’s communications director, Stewart Bybee: “Sen. Heller has and continues to work with a number of groups, including the PPA, to find a workable solution to address Internet gaming in a way that benefits Nevada.”

Heller told the Sun this month that he would like to help move Internet gaming legislation through the Senate before the House, stressing that it “needs to start on this side, because that’s where it failed last time.”

But Heller won’t get to make that call — ultimately, in the Senate, that seems to be up to Nevada’s top-dog Democrat Harry Reid, and Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Heller hasn’t had the chance to prove his word on Internet poker: He wasn’t in Congress in 2006 when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act — the measure that outlawed transactions of bets — was passed.

Berkley was, and sounded the alarm against it.

“I’m not a stranger to this issue. I stepped up very early, in the early part of my congressional tenure, and I’ve been working on this issue for a decade,” she said. “I was one of the few people who stood up during the port security debate and spoke out against adding this provision in — the ban on Internet gaming — from the start.”

If Berkley proves to have a lock on the Poker Players Alliance though, it doesn’t mean she’s got a lock on the whole gaming industry, which has die-hard Heller supporters. Berkley was Sheldon Adelson’s lawyer at one point, but the two had a falling out and Adelson is now a big Heller backer, financially and otherwise.

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