John Prescott secretly stayed on the ranch of a US billionaire who stands to cash in if an application for super-casino in the Millennium Dome is given the go-ahead.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who stayed at the ranch with aides, yesterday denied that there had been a conflict of interest when he spent the weekend with Philip Anschutz in July last year.
Mr Anschutz's AEG firm was one of two to be handed the Dome by a quango sponsored by Mr Prescott's former department in July 2004.
Although Mr Prescott yesterday denied he had been involved in the sale, he admitted that he had had "contact" with Mr Anschutz over "the use of the Dome post-sale in terms of regeneration of the area".
One of the most critical issues surrounding the site is the fate of an application for a licence to run a casino in the venue by a South African billionaire, Sol Kerzner. If the Las Vegas-style casino is approved, Mr Anschutz will push ahead with plans for a 350-suite hotel next to the Dome. Tim Leiweke, chief executive of AEG, said in December last year: "The gaming licence is critical. We're taking a gamble that the gaming laws are structured in such a way that Kerzner gets a licence there."
Mr Prescott helped to draw up new laws that liberalise gambling as chairman of the domestic affairs committee. His department is said to have pushed consistently for new casino applications to be approved in inner-city areas rather than seaside towns such as Blackpool.
Mr Prescott's American visit took place between 17 and 26 July 2005, with Mr Prescott visiting Washington, Texas, Colorado, Denver and Los Angeles. The visit had straddled a weekend and it was then that Mr Prescott and his party had stayed at Mr Anschutz's ranch, a spokesman said. He said that during the stay the two men had not discussed business and that Mr Prescott's permanent secretary, Mavis Macdonald, was informed in advance.
Mr Prescott's statement said: "It is not true to suggest I had any involvement whatsoever in the sale of the Dome. I played no role in any planning decisions relating to the sale of the Dome or in any negotiations for the sale of the Dome.
"My contact with Philip Anschutz relates solely to the use of the Dome post-sale in terms of the regeneration of the area and Mr Anschutz's interest in William Wilberforce, a former Hull MP and slavery abolitionist about whom Mr Anschutz is making a film, as I am involved in the 2007 abolition bicentenary."
The stay was not declared in the Register of Members' interests and could conflict with part of the ministerial code which says "no minister or public servant should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him under an obligation". Mr Prescott subsequently made a donation to a 7 July charity to the value of what it would have cost him and his civil servants to stay in a hotel.
A spokesperson said that the stay had not been registered because it had taken place during a departmental trip and there had been no benefit to the department. However, she also said that there was no conflict of interest because Mr Prescott had stayed during "a day off".
Tory Shadow culture secretary Hugo Swire will write to Mr Prescott on Monday demanding to know the links between Mr Anschutz, his companies and government ministers. "Mr Prescott now needs to make clear precisely what discussions he has had with Mr Anschutz over the Dome, including the application for a casino application. He also needs to tell us what discussions he had with Tessa Jowell, other ministers and officials on the issue."
In June 2004, English Partnerships concluded a deal with Meridian Delta Ltd and the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) for the redevelopment over 20 years of the whole of the northern Greenwich peninsula, including the Dome. The deal was overseen by English Partnership's sponsoring department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. AEG wants to re-open the Dome next July as a £600m arts centre.