Politics & Government

Calif. congressman finds Estonia trip profitable — at the slots

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, turned a tidy gambling profit during official travel to Estonia last year, winning $1,700 at the slot machines.

Cardoza scored at a facility operating under the name Olympic Casino, Estonia's largest gambling company. He was one of five House members to be visiting the former Soviet republic in July, but the only one to report wagering with such conspicuous success.

"He popped in a few coins in a slot machine, and won," Cardoza's press secretary, Jamie McInerney, said Tuesday.

Cardoza's excursion to the nation of 1.3 million was part of a broader congressional delegation trip that also touched down in Sweden and Russia. Led by House Minority Leader John Boehner, the bipartisan delegation's members included Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. Lawmakers described their approximately week-long trip as a good opportunity to learn firsthand about foreign policy issues.

"We were representing California strongly," Nunes said after the trip.

McInerney added Tuesday that the lawmakers met with Estonian defense and economic policy officials as well as members of the Parliament. The officials zeroed in on cyber-security, as Estonian-based computers had recently been subjected to a sustained cyber attack.

McInerney said Cardoza was having a hard time sleeping amid the international travel. Following a day of meetings and an official dinner, he said, Cardoza went for a walk and came upon one of the Olympic casinos. He said Cardoza was alone on the night he played the slot machines and won big.

The congressional delegation stayed in Estonia for two nights, according to the delegation's itinerary. Nunes, in an interview Tuesday, said he was unfamiliar with Cardoza's playing the slot machines. He recalled, though, that he and Cardoza went out one night to a casino several blocks from their hotel and played blackjack "for a couple of hours."

"I remember he won," Nunes said, noting that he and Cardoza "have been to casinos before together" on other travels. He recalled that the Estonian casino they visited was "not as big as a Vegas casino, but it was a nice place."

Olympic operates 27 separate casinos in Tallinn, a city of about 400,000 residents. Each casino offers a somewhat different character and appearance, judging by the company's Web site.

"(It) is the brightest pearl in the gaming world by the Baltic Sea, combining European discretion with Las Vegas type entertainment," the casino company's Web site declares about one facility.

The Estonian casino is part of the burgeoning Olympic Entertainment Group empire, which currently operates more than 120 gaming halls in seven Eastern European countries. This summer, the company's latest will open in Slovakia.

"Entry is free to over 21s," the casino's Web site notes, "but smart dress is required."

In addition to lawmakers, the diverse 13-member traveling party ranged from House Chaplain Dan Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, to Wilson Livingood, a longtime Secret Service agent who now serves as House sergeant-at-arms. All told, public records show, the delegation trip cost the House $45,693.

Cardoza disclosed his gambling winnings this week, as part of the annual personal financial disclosure statement filed by members of Congress. It marks the first time since Cardoza's 2002 election to the House that he has reported any gambling income. While in the state Assembly, though, the Associated Press reported he took trips to the Kentucky Derby, Del Mar racetrack, Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas.

"I love horse racing," Cardoza said at the time. "Personally, I think it's a great sport."

House members are paid $169,300 annually. Besides the gambling winnings, Cardoza reported buying several high-tech stocks in March 2007 and then selling his Sun Microsystems and Microsoft shares in July. The broad categories of the financial disclosure statement do not divulge precise profits or losses.

The San Joaquin Valley's other House members filed largely unremarkable financial disclosure statements this year. One, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, reported receiving $300 worth of private golf lessons. The lessons were a gift from his staff, according to Radanovich's disclosure statement.