September 07, 2014

Florida's lax regulations allow greyhound operators to avoid penalties for years

GreyhoundsWhen Saul Mays applied for a license to own and train greyhounds in 2002, his rap sheet signaled he was not a model citizen.

Convicted of kidnapping his estranged wife at gunpoint in 1988, after taking her into the woods and sexually assaulting her, he had served three years in prison. The staff at the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering recommended Mays application to race dogs be denied, but Mays appealed and was granted a license.

A year later in 2003, investigators found evidence that Mays’ dogs were being abused at the Jefferson County Kennel Club. He was investigated at his Monticello kennel then, again in 2005 and 2010, when inspectors found seven “very thin” dogs and others covered with tick bites. In each case, state regulators concluded there was not enough evidence of abuse and no action was taken.

Mays got his first reprimand in 2012, only after the Washington County Kennel Club in Ebro reported that greyhounds Mays put up for adoption were “covered in ticks” and the dogs “all appeared to be in poor overall shape.”

But the 2012 penalty didn’t come from the state. It came from the National Greyhound Association, which represents owners and trainers. The organization banned Mays for life from “any further involvement with NGA-registered greyhounds.” Florida regulators fined Mays $300 and let him keep his license.

Florida’s law gives the Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering the power to revoke or suspend a license of an dog or horse trainer or owner if he has been convicted of a felony or is found abusing animals. But, based on dozens of cases reviewed by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, the implementation of the rules are lax, and the penalties are often weak.

In the last year, state regulators have granted 80 occupational licenses to owners and trainers who have been convicted of a host of crimes — from cocaine, heroin and amphetamine possession to assault and battery — and denied 115 requests from people with felony convictions.

Florida law bans anyone convicted of a felony from working in a card room or a casino but allows them to be licensed to race horses and dogs as long as they receive a waiver.

In many other cases — in which state investigators found dogs exposed to cocaine, lacked vaccinations or showed signs of abuse — Florida regulators often took years to impose a penalty, records show. By contrast, regulators in other states, including Texas, Arizona and Arkansas, told the Herald/Times they typically close their cases within a month. Story here. 

 

August 18, 2014

New Dania casino wants to close for a year but regulators have final say

Dania Jai AlaiSix months after opening, Dania Casino and Jai-Alai announced late Friday that it will close for a year starting in October, putting an estimated 300 people out of work.

Company officials say closing the brand new casino is necessary to expedite the company’s $50 million in renovations needed to help Broward’s newest casino compete in the rigorous South Florida gaming market. But the move also comes after the company’s revenue performance was the worst in the region, and its owners were forced to write a check to the state for nearly $400,000 after it under-reported its taxes for three months because of an alleged software glitch.

"We are not shutting down because there are any money problems,’’ said John Lockwood, Tallahassee-based lawyer for the company. "It’s about speeding up our investment in the property. This has nothing to do with the performance of the facility."

Meanwhile, the Division of Parimutuel Wagering could have a say on whether the facility will be allowed to close at all.

The company needs the agency’s approval before it can alter its jai alai schedule and the division is "still reviewing it,’’ said Tajiana Ancora-Brown, spokeswoman for the agency. State law requires that the facility perform a certain number of performances to maintain its permit.

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June 25, 2014

No Casinos poll: Voters want final say in any expansion

Any discussion of expanded gambling, or limited gambling, may be on hold until after the election but a new poll out by No Casinos says legislators should keep voters in mind before making any commitments.  Download Florida-Gambling-Survey-June-2014-Handouts

Here's the press release:

Florida voters don’t want elected officials who represent them to support more gambling in the state, and they heavily favor a Constitutional Amendment that would require voters statewide to have the final say on whether or not a form of gambling is legal in Florida. The poll of 604 likely voters was conducted by Hill Research Consultants, and is part of a candidate pledge package being sent by NoCasinos.org to all candidates running for the Florida Legislature.

“It is good public policy and smart politics to be against the expansion of gambling in Florida,” said NoCasinos.org President John Sowinski. “Floridians don’t want their elected officials to legalize more gambling, and Florida voters want to have the final say on this issue through a statewide vote of the people.” The poll consistently showed strong bi-partisan consensus on these issues.

The highlights of the polling are as follows:

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May 27, 2014

Court opens the door to a new jai alai/poker room -- maybe casino -- in Miami Dade

Florida City could be home to Miami Dade’s next poker room and, with time, slot machines, under a loophole in the law affirmed Tuesday by a state appeals court.

The decision by the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee overruled state regulators and said that Magic City’s parent company, West Flagler Associates, is eligible to obtain a summer jai alai permit that could also open the door to expanded gambling.

Because of a loophole in state law, West Flagler is required to obtain the jai alai permit then operate a single jai alai game to be eligible for a poker room. After two years, it could become eligible for a slot machine license in Miami Dade County.

Isadore Havenick, West Flagler owner and vice president, said the company has an option to buy a piece of property in Florida City and, if the division grants the summer jai alai permit as expected, the company plans to build a poker room and jai alai fronton near Homestead there.

As for building a new casino, "we honestly haven’t thought that far in advance,’’ Havenick told the Herald/Times. "Now, it’s a poker room and a jai alai fronton and, hopefully, we'll be allowed to build that if the division allows us."

West Flagler Associates received a summer jai alai permit in 2011 after the company’s attorney, John Lockwood, uncovered a never-used loophole in a 30-year-old pari-mutuel law. The law allows a summer permit to be awarded to the lowest-performing pari-mutuel in a county. Hialeah Park had the lowest racing handle of the county’s pari-mutuels in the 2011-2012 fiscal year but it declined the option for the permit, so West Flagler became the next one eligible.

The company applied for a second permit in 2012, but the Department of Business and Professional Regulation ruled that company was eligible for only one permit every two years. West Flagler Associates said the law was intended to be a rolling two-year period and the same rule should apply in 2012 as applied in 2011. The DCA upheld that argument.  Download DCA reversal of Flagler denial

"The statute plainly provides that the permitholder with the lowest handle for ‘the 2 consecutive years next prior to filing an application’ may apply for a summer jai alai permit, and, if it declines to do so, a ‘new permit’ is made available," Judge Scott Makar wrote in the 3-0 ruling. DCA Judges Brad Thomas and Simone Marstiller concurred.

The permit comes loaded with advantages that legislators never imagined in 1980, when the law was written. It opens the door for a jai-alai fronton and poker room anywhere in Miami-Dade County. It also increases the odds of operating a new slot casino as a result of a a 2009 law that allowed Hialeah Park Racetrack to operate slots after Miami-Dade voters authorized them for three other pari-mutuels in the county.

The court said state regulators were concerned that this interpretation of the law "would lead to a proliferation of summer jai alai permits,’’ but, the court noted, it’s the Legislature’s job to close the loophole if it doesn’t like the way the law is written. "We cannot interpret the language of the existing statute to achieve this result," Makar wrote.

Florida’s loophole-laden gambling laws have allowed for the gradual proliferation of gambling expansion in recent years as creative lawyers for the industry have found convinced regulators and courts to permit new games.

Legislators discussed ways to close the loopholes and update the state’s gaming laws for the past year but, after spending $400,000 on a consultants study, legislators finished the session that ended May 2 without many any changes to the state’s pari-mutuel laws.

April 28, 2014

Special session on gaming compact? 'It's toast'

If Gov. Rick Scott was taking the temperature of the Florida Legislature last week about its interest in a special session to ratify a gambling compact, he has gotten the cold shoulder. 

Legislative leaders in both the House and Senate have all but rebuffed the governor’s offer to hold a special session in May after his deputies hinted that he was “getting close” to an agreement with the Seminole Tribe over the gaming compact that expires next year. 

“It’s toast,’’ said one high-ranking Republican Monday, who noted that the governor’s failure to offer details led many of them to conclude that he gave the tribe what they wanted.

That perception may have repercussions for the governor as he tries to appeal to casino giants for campaign cash. Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and Donald Trump have both been supporters of the governor in the past but have withheld sending his political committee any contributions since he has been engaged in negotations with the tribe.

By contrast, the Seminole Tribe has given the governor’s political committee $500,000 after he opened negotiations with them on renewing their monopoly on black jack and other banked card games at their casinos.

But for any agreement to become law, the legislature has to ratify it and by Monday, legislators and lobbyists interviewed by the Miami Herald, said it was clear that the governor not only couldn’t muster the votes for it in the Senate, which traditionally is more pro-gambling, but he also barely had 30 votes in the more conservative House.

Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera met privately with House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz last week in an effort to get a sense of the support for a session to ratify the governor's pending deal. But many legislators interviewed over the weekend and on Monday said they believed that the governor's move last week showed his hand.

Although the governor didn't offer details, many lawmakers believed that he was close to an agreement that gave the tribe the exclusive ability to continue offering black jack and banked card games and possibly expand to craps and roulette. In return, they expected the governor to extract more money from the tribe each year but allow for little, if any, concession to approving destination resorts casinos in South Florida. They also expected the deal to deny any gaming expansion at the state's parimutuels.

After legislators spent the last year studying those issues -- and were prepared to allow some changes  -- they put their debate on hold at the request of the governor when he decided to open talks with the tribe. His late-session call for a special session with little input from lawmakers made many lawmakers mad.

House Democrats, for example, said they have repeatedly asked for information and have never been given it.

“If were are not involved in any of the discussions the likelihood of us going along is very slim,’’ said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. “It would be silly for us to agree to a special session now when they aren’t going to present it to us and keep us in the loop.’’

Several legislators expressed dismay that the governor has waited until the final week on several issues – from child welfare, to medical marijuana and now gambling – to inject his concerns.

“Why do we need to do it in the last week?,’’ Waldman asked. “The compact doesn’t expire until next year.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville said he was approached by Lopez Cantera who said “we don’t have a deal but we might have a deal and we just want to take your temperature to see how a compact might be received.’’

Gaetz told reporters Monday that he replied: “I said, I can’t tell you how it would be received until you tell me what it is.’’ He noted that something as seemingly simple as pushing a bill to require injury reporting at greyhound tracks “turned into a pretty contentious issue."

“Anytime gaming gets mentioned,'' Gaetz explained, "it’s like red meat in the middle of the table with a bunch of carnivores around because of all the interests groups that have a stake in the process.”

 

April 25, 2014

Governor urges Congress to reject Internet gambling expansion

Gov. Rick Scott may be in the midst of deciding whether to allow the expansion of gambling in Florida with his negotiations with the Seminole Tribe, but this week he made it clear he vigorously opposes Internet gambling.

In a letter to congressional leaders on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, the governor urged Congress to clarify that the federal Wire Act bars online state lottery sales and reverse a Department of Justice ruling last year that opened the door to internet gambling.

“Allowing Internet gaming to invade the homes of every American family, and be piped into our dens, our living rooms, our workplaces, and even our kids’ bedrooms and dorm rooms is a major decision,’’ the governor wrote in the three-page letter. “We must carefully examine the short and long-term social and economic consequences before Internet gambling spreads.”  Download INTERNET GAMING LETTER

He urged Congress to “step in now and call a ‘time-out’ by restoring the decades-long interpretation of the Wire Act.”

While many existing casino companies are behind the online gambling push, a key opponent has been Sheldon Adelson, head the Las Vegas Sands gambling empire who asked the governor to write the letter. He has bankrolled a group, the Coaltion to Stop Internet Gambling and has personally persuaded other GOP governors to join the cause.

Congress enacted the Interstate Wire Act of 1961, also known as the Federal Wire Act, to prohibit sports betting through wire communication.  For years, the Justice Department interpreted the wire act to include all forms of internet gambling but in 2011, the Justice Department released a formal legal opinion on the scope of the wire act and concluded that “interstate transmissions of wire communications that do not relate to a ‘sporting event or contest’ fall outside the reach of the Wire Act.”

That opened the door to off-shore gambling operators, and U.S.-based casino giants, to invest in state-based Internet gambling operations. Three states, New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada, have since passed legislation authorizing Internet gambling and it is available throughout Europe.

The Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling warns that if these efforts are allowed, there will be little to no control over who is exposed to gambling. Children and gambling addicts could have unlimited access to games as they play in the comfort of their homes on lap tops and tablets, the group warns, and organized crime and international terrorists could use the enterprises to hide capital and launder money.

While many existing casino companies are behind the online gambling push, a key opponent has been Sheldon Adelson, head the Las Vegas Sands gambling empire who asked the governor to write the letter. He has bankrolled a group, the Coaltion to Stop Internet Gambling and has personally persuaded other GOP governors to join the cause.

“We appreciate you consideration of our views,’’ Scott wrote, “and look forward ot working with you on developing a sensible policy that protects Americans and preserves the traditional role of the states in controlling gambling within their borders.”

April 23, 2014

Senate committee rejects effort to reduce dog racing at parimutuels but passes injury reporting

A proposal to end the requirement that dog tracks race greyhounds in order to keep their gaming permits died Tuesday in the Florida Senate on a procedural vote.

The decision not to take up the proposal by the Senate Appropriations Committee means that Florida’s 13 remaining greyhound tracks will operate another year as they are today, following the same racing schedules they have been required to follow for more than a decade.

The committee approved a less restrictive dog racing bill (SB 742) requiring track operators and dog trainers to report race-related injuries to state gaming regulators. If the bill passes, it will be the first time in Florida greyhound racing history that track operators have been required to report injuries.

Florida is one of only two states that do not require injury reporting and animals rights activists had also hoped this would be the year they could get approval to pass the so-call "de-coupling" bill that would have allowed tracks to reduce their racing schedule and, ultimately, end dog racing.

Florida has more greyhound racing than any other state, but the racing schedule is still tethered to a 1997 law that allowed track owners to operate poker rooms only if they operate 90 percent of the races they held back then.

The Senate Appropriations Committee failed to take up the measure after the proposal, by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, was subjected to a rules challenge by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Latvala, a supporter of the pari-mutuel industry, said the proposal was too broad of an expansion of the original bill and violated Senate rules. In addition to reducing the schedule of live races, the bill would have changed the tax rates on race tracks, revised permits and ended charity events.

The bill’s defeat was a blow to animal rights groups, which said they had the votes to pass the measure.

"This means that greyhound decoupling is very likely dead for this session,’’ Carey Theil, director of Grey2K USA, the greyhound advocacy group that spearheaded the effort this session, said in an email to supporters. "Greyhound decoupling will come back, and I am confident that it will eventually become law.’’ Story here. 

April 14, 2014

Hall-of-famer Brooks Robinson's lawsuit against tribe exposes flaws in compact

Brooks Robinson nowRenowned baseball hall-of-famer Brooks Robinson plunged six feet from an unsecured stage during a charity event at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood two years ago and is now suing the Seminole Tribe for nearly $10 million for his permanent injuries.

But whether the 76-year-old Baltimore Orioles superstar will collect enough to even cover his medical bills is an open question, said his Miami attorney, Jack Hickey, because under state law the tribe’s liability is limited.

Robinson still experiences bleeding on the brain, cracks in his spine, and has lost five inches in height as a result of the injuries, Hickey said. He requires constant care and “has aged ten years since the fall.”

Under the state’s legal agreement with the tribe, if someone is injured at a tribal casino and wants to sue, the tribe’s payment is capped at $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident, the same limits enjoyed by the state when it is sued for negligence.

A victim suffering from serious injury “can blow through that pretty quickly,” Hickey said. But, unlike the state, victims who sue the tribe can’t appeal to the Legislature for more money when a jury awards more than the liability limits. Story here. 

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April 12, 2014

With compact, governor has the power to dictate future of gaming in Florida

Gov. Rick Scott, who made a career out of negotiating hospital mergers, is now applying his negotiating skills to a deal with the Seminole Tribe that could singlehandedly dictate the future of gaming in Florida.

The legal agreement, known as a compact, could open the door to swanky resort casinos in Miami Dade and Broward, or force them to remain off limits indefinitely. It could allow for dog racing to be replaced by arcade-style games, or close loopholes in state gambling law. It could allow for lower tax rates at the state’s horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons, or force them to remain at a competitive disadvantage with the tribe.

Or it could do nothing, leaving in place the status quo.

Like any good negotiator, Scott is keeping his cards close to the vest and neither he nor the tribe is talking.

Records show the governor’s general counsel, Pete Antonacci, hired two Minnesota law firms in December that specialize in tribal law to “provide advice and assistance on tribal-state compact negotiations.” Antonacci, traveled to Fort Lauderdale recently, to meet with the tribe’s top lawyers.

And the most potent sign that the governor is talking: his office asked legislators to stop discussions of its gambling bills to avoid losing his leverage in the deal. That prompted House Speaker Will Weatherford last week to officially declare “lights are out” on gambling legislation for the session.

“The compact truly has become the cornerstone of gaming policy in the state of Florida,’’ said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who helped negotiate the current compact but has not been invited to be part of this year’s discussion. More here.

 

 

Gambling may be dead for the session but its short life was lucrative

The debate over gambling may be dead in the Florida Legislature for this session, but it's short life was very lucrative for legislative campaign coffers. 

The Republican Party of Florida raised nearly three times as much as the Florida Democratic Party from gambling interests, as is usually the case, but to get there you have to exclude the $375,000 contribution to the Democrats from a global gaming company, Delaware North Corporation, that wanted to influence a local election.

Gambling interests gave the Republican Party of Florida $832,000 between Jan. 1 and March 30 and, not including the Delaware North money, gave Democrats $347,000. That includes $150,000 in checks to each of the parties from the Seminole Tribe -- which also gave Gov. Rick Scott's political committee $500,000.

Gaming companies gave thousands to the political committees of legislative leaders as well, as new laws opened the door to unlimited contributions but greater transparency.

On the other side of the gambling scale is Disney, which vigorously opposes allowing so-called destination resorts into Florida to compete with its convention business. The company gave close to $550,000 to state level campaigns in the last quarter, including $323,000 to the Republican Party and $71,640 to the Democratic Party.

The company's affiliates also gave a $250,000 check to the Florida Chamber political action fund, the Florida Jobs PAC. and $25,000 each to Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Richard Corcoran.

The biggest contributors among the gambling interests were represented by the lobbying firm of Ballard Partners, headed by Brian Ballard.

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