House Speaker Newt Gingrich says a planned national gaming commission probably will not have the power to pry into casino records, according to Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Gingrich's remarks, made at a small dinner party at the home of Mirage Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn, has given hope to gaming executives fighting a move by Congress to develop a national gambling panel.
The gaming industry is opposed to a commission having power to subpoena records. The industry is afraid that high-rollers will be scared off if a commission beings snooping into casino files.
There has been confusion, however, over what Gingrich actually said. The Georgia Republican was unavailable for comment.
Wynn said he didn't hear Gingrich discuss a gambling commission or subpoena power. However, Wynn said he already knew that Gingrich anticipates Congress will remove subpoena power from the bill creating a commission.
"That was the position he had before he came out here," Wynn said.
The bill, which still includes subpoena power, is awaiting a hearing this month in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
Ensign said Gingrich made his remarks Sunday night at Wynn's dinner party, attended by Ensign, Rio hotel-casino Chairman Anthony Marnell and Circus Circus executive William Richardson. Also in attendance were Wynn's wife, Elaine, Gingrich's wife and a House aide.
Ensign said Gingrich indicated he would rather Congress approve any subpoenas recommended by the commission.
Gingrich's position has angered religious anti-gaming advocates who believe the gaming industry is calling the shots in Washington, D.C.
Methodist Minister Thomas Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, warned that efforts by Gingrich or other Republicans to water down the gaming commission bill could help Democratic President Clinton secure the "family values" vote in November.
"This could create great problems for Republicans because they're making this a political issue," Grey said. "This is a public relations disaster for these people."
Christian Coalition spokesman Mike Russell said his organization wants to meet with Gingrich to clarify his position.
"Without subpoena power, it would be more difficult to get definitive answers to questions," Russell said.
Anti-gaming advocates say they want the commission to be able to subpoena casino market research reports and customer records to determine whether the industry is targeting compulsive gamblers. Industry supporters say such subpoenas would be a violation of privacy and divert gaming income overseas.
Ensign argued that study commissions formed by Congress normally aren't given their own subpoena powers. He said the House bill sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and initially backed by Gingrich is unprecedented because it would shift those powers from Congress to the commission.
"Any congressional commission can come back to Congress and ask for subpoena power," Ensign said.
Sen. Richard Bryan, R-Nev., said it might be unconstitutional for Congress to grant subpoena requests for the commission because some of its members would be selected by Clinton. That might be construed as a violation of separation of powers because it would mean the legislative branch is delegating authority to executive branch appointees, he said.
Mitch Rose, spokesman for Senate Government Affairs Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said Stevens has not indicated whether the Senate version will retain subpoena power for the commission.
"We're trying to figure out what the supporters are looking for," Rose said. " We'll try to sit down with all sides and determine what the goals of the commission are."