01/11/2002 1:00AM

Churchill donations draw fire


The state chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, a political watchdog group, has filed an ethics complaint against Churchill Downs, calling the racetrack company's recent donations of $15,500 to Kentucky legislators "damaging to the political process."

Richard Beliles, the chairman, filed the complaint on his own behalf, he said Friday. The filing is expected to trigger an investigation by the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, which would not comment on the complaint on Friday.

Churchill Downs made the donations just before the opening of the Kentucky legislative session on Tuesday, sending out checks worth $500 or $1,000 to 25 lawmakers. The donations have come under fire because the legislature is expected to address expanded gambling at racetracks during the session, an issue that is strongly supported by Churchill Downs and other racetracks in the state.

"What they did is completely legal," Beliles said Friday. "There's no way around that. But their timing is egregious. It's really damaging."

Some legislators have returned the donations. Although some legislators did not take issue with the checks, others criticized the tactic.

"It's beyond me how they don't know this is inappropriate," Rep. Susan Westrom, a Democrat from Lexington, was quoted as saying in The Lexington Herald-Leader. Westrom did not receive a check, The Herald-Leader reported.

John Asher, the track's vice president for racing communications, told the Herald-Leader that the company "will cooperate fully in any investigation."