The chief executive of Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group on Wednesday defended the company's relationship with beleaguered Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, calling British media reports that the firm's founder had sought favors from Prescott "vicious" and "false."
CEO Tim Leiweke added that the reputation of Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz was being trashed in an effort to bring down Prescott.
Anschutz wants to locate a super-casino in his $1-billion entertainment district in East London.
When news broke last week that Prescott, whose portfolio includes planning and urban redevelopment, had met Anschutz on seven occasions, including a two-night stay last July at the tycoon's Colorado ranch, allegations of corruption were quickly aired by Britain's political opposition and media.
Leiweke said he decided to speak publicly out of concern that the furor could undercut a serious economic redevelopment program.
"It is unfair to the development, the people of London who will pay a price for not maximizing this opportunity and to Phil," he said in a telephone interview from Denver after returning from a business trip to Europe.
Conservative shadow culture secretary Hugo Swire said "profound" questions remained over Prescott's visit to Eagle's Nest Ranch.
Alistair Graham, the head of Parliament's Committee on Standards in Public Life, has urged Prime Minister Tony Blair to order an investigation to "clear the air." Rival bidders for the super-casino license have questioned Prescott's judgment.
Blair's office has said he still has confidence in the deputy prime minister.
Prescott, a feisty politician of the Labor old guard, is seen as essential to a government whose popularity is flagging after nearly a decade in power. Revelations last spring that he had an extramarital affair with his secretary cost him part of his portfolio, but Prescott has shrugged off the latest charges as well as calls for his resignation.
"If the allegation is corruption, I know it's not there and nobody has produced any evidence of such a thing," he told the Independent newspaper.
Anschutz, who is developing the ambitious L.A. Live project in downtown Los Angeles, has a long-term lease with the British government to build a 23,000-seat arena along with movie theaters, restaurants and pubs at the site of the Millennium Dome on the River Thames.
Part of his strategy includes leasing resort space to South African billionaire Sol Kerzner to operate Britain's first super-casino. Anschutz's AEG Europe plans to invest an additional $1 billion in the second phase of the project.
But obtaining a gambling license from the British government is far from assured. Eight sites are vying for one casino permit allowing payouts of unlimited prize money.
The gambling component represents a critical piece of the Dome development, Leiweke said. "Gaming at that location economically makes the entire project more viable," he said.
The Mail on Sunday newspaper disclosed that during last year's ranch visit, Anschutz gave Prescott a Stetson hat, cowboy boots and a belt and silver buckle with his initials, worth up to $20,000.
An Anschutz spokesman said Prescott received a pair of Stetson bluejeans, spurs, off-the-rack cowboy boots, a belt and buckle and a leather notebook worth a total of $1,354.
The Western gear could violate the British ministerial code, which says that "no minister should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him or her under an obligation."
The report prompted Swire to request from Prescott a list of all gifts he had received from people connected to AEG or Kerzner. It also led to lurid headlines such as the Daily Mail's "Sleaze Chief Quizzes 'Cowboy' Prescott."
Prescott's stay at Anschutz's ranch came during a nine-day official trip to the U.S. last year. Prescott initially said he and the entrepreneur discussed nothing more controversial than William Wilberforce, the 18th century anti-slavery activist about whom Anschutz's film studio is making a movie. He insisted that Anschutz's plans for the Dome and backing for a super-casino on the site had not been mentioned.
Leiweke said he attended all but one of the meetings between Anschutz and Prescott. He was not present when Anschutz drove from Denver to the ranch for a two-hour dinner with Prescott.
The other meetings included a visit to Home Depot Center in Carson in July 2004 to watch a soccer match in Anschutz's owner's box, a reception with U.S. Olympic officials in the Southland and a tour of the Millennium Dome site. All other meetings were periodic visits by Anschutz to Prescott's office.
The super-casino was discussed with Prescott "in a couple of conversations that were very minimal and insignificant," Leiweke said.
Anschutz and AEG officials did not attempt to lobby Prescott on the casino deal, Leiweke said. He noted that Prescott did not have any responsibility for issuing the casino license.
"Prescott, because of his indiscretions, has become a wounded animal and the media smells blood," he said. "We know it is about Prescott and not about us."
Times staff writer Bunting reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent McWalters from London.