Did state GOP chief offer to jump fence on gaming?

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE and BAIRD HELGESON
  • Updated: April 15, 2011 - 1:14 PM

Tony Sutton denies claims that his wife tried to broker deal to promote racinos. A South St. Paul businessman says otherwise.

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State GOP Chairman Tony Sutton

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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State GOP chairman Tony Sutton is in a bitter and now public feud with a former business associate and Republican fundraiser over whether he offered to switch sides on state gaming issues in exchange for a job.

For years, Sutton has actively supported his party's platform against gambling expansion in Minnesota. But late last year, according to South St. Paul businessman Bill Lethert, Sutton's wife asked Lethert to help her find out whether a group trying to add slot machines to horse racing tracks would hire her husband to promote their effort at the Capitol.

Sutton and his wife, Bridget, vehemently deny they sought business from the group. "That is a bald-faced lie," said Sutton, who offered to take a polygraph test to prove his truthfulness.

"It is false, false, false."

The allegations come just days before Sutton is scheduled to be reelected as party chairman. He faces no serious opposition in Saturday's election.

Lethert and Bridget Sutton exchanged e-mails earlier this year. In one of the e-mails, which were reviewed by the Star Tribune, she discussed the family's need to "replace lost income." In another she asked Lethert to help her find a job.

Tony Sutton did not dispute the authenticity of the e-mails, which were supplied by Lethert and which do not address the alleged racino proposal.

In an interview last month, Bridget Sutton said the idea of soliciting business from pro-gambling forces originated with Lethert, who owns an amusement gaming company that supplied jukeboxes to restaurants owned by the Suttons. Lethert also is active in horse racing and he acknowledges his gaming amusement company could benefit if the Legislature approves slots in bars or racetracks through the racino bill.

At a lunch to discuss the November elections, Bridget Sutton said, Lethert asked whether her husband would meet with his horse racing friends.

Bridget Sutton said she discouraged the idea, telling Lethert that her husband was "not going to buck the party platform." She said she told Lethert: "'If you want to talk with him, it's up to you.' That's the last I heard of it."

According to Lethert, the racino lobbying idea came from Bridget Sutton, who is on the board of Citizens Against Gambling Expansion (CAGE), a nonprofit advocacy group that has received support from tribal gaming interests.

Tony Sutton is also on the board.

Lethert said Bridget Sutton told him that tribal gaming interests wanted to hire her husband in an effort to block any expansion of gambling that would threaten their casino monopoly in the state. Lethert said Bridget Sutton made it clear that her husband was also willing to work for the other side and help promote the racino bill.

"If you hire Tony, the odds are a lot higher to get racino than if you don't hire Tony," was the message from Bridget Sutton, according to Lethert.

Canterbury Park CEO Randy Sampson said Lethert told him about the overture from the Suttons late last year, but he decided not to pursue it and never talked to either Bridget or Tony Sutton.

Lethert said he decided to go public because he feels betrayed by Sutton's involvement with CAGE and Sutton's denouncement of Sampson for telling the Star Tribune about the pitch last month. Lethert and his wife have contributed more than $3,000 to Republicans in Minnesota, vs. $500 for Democratic candidates, records and interviews show. Lethert said he raised more than $20,000 for GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer last year.

In December, Sutton founded a political consulting and public relations firm called Winning Strategies, state records show. Sutton declined to identify any of his clients. He said the names of his clients are nobody's business, but that he said he would never work for anyone whose interests conflict with the Republican Party platform.

"It makes it simple," Sutton said. "That way I don't have to worry about whether there's a conflict."

In February, Sutton urged Republican lawmakers to avoid "the tremendous pressure by outside special interests" and not approve any revenue-generating proposals, including gambling expansion.

Sutton, who has not been paid as party chairman for the past two years, said he may seek compensation if he wins reelection as expected this week.

"I've gotten a lot of encouragement from activists and donors," Sutton said. "They think I'm crazy that I've been doing it full time with no compensation."

If the party job comes with a paycheck, Sutton said, he may let his wife take control of Winning Strategies.

"I may have to mothball or maybe it's something Bridget can do, I don't know." Sutton said. "I'm really debating what do I do. I only have so many hours in the day to work. And right now I spend probably 95 percent of my time on the party. So from a practical matter, that's where I'm spending my time."

Brad Schrade • 651-222-1636 Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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