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332 posts from March 2013

March 31, 2013

Undercover slots expert lays out case against 'Internet cafes' and arcades

Working undercover as just another aging patron, D. Robert Sertell watched as customers streamed into Internet cafes in strip malls across Florida to buy access to Internet time or long-distance phone service.

As a national expert on slot machines, Sertell saw that the customers visiting the cafes operated by the Florida-based charity Allied Veterans of the World were not there to surf the web or make phone calls. They came to play what he contends are illegal slot machines, complete with spinning wheels, cash payouts, and names such as Captain Cash, Lucky Shamrocks and Money Bunny.

Using a mouse as their lever, and “sweepstakes” credits as their coins, customers played games that were nothing more than sophisticated, computerized slot machines, Sertell concluded after visiting 41 cafes, from Monroe County to Duval County, in early January.

“The little old ladies, whose eyes were fixated on the screen, would sit and play. Their hand never leaving the mouse,” he told the Herald/Times. “They refer to it as a casino. Every one of those machines is rigged. It’s a game of chance.”

Sertell, 71, known as “Father Slots” in the casino industry, is a slot machine expert from New Jersey who has built machines, written training and repair manuals and has become the expert of choice for law enforcement officials who want to know the difference between a computer that is rigged to operate like a slot machine and one that isn’t.

He is expected to be a key witness for state and federal prosecutors in arguing that the electronic sweepstakes machines run by Allied Veterans at their 49 Internet cafes in Florida were illegal gambling operations, operating under the guise of a charity. More here.


Sen. Marco Rubio says immigration deal cannot be "rushed or done in secret"

Not so fast, says Sen. Marco Rubio.
In an Easter morning statement from his Senate office, the Florida Republican said talk of some kind of agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill are "premature."

He is one of eight senators teaming up to tackle one of the most contentious issues in Congress.

Rubio was reacting to news reports on Saturday that business and labor groups had reached a deal on guest workers, a key component of an immigration reform bill.

Said Rubio: “I’m encouraged by reports of an agreement between business groups and unions on the issue of guest workers. However, reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature.

“We have made substantial progress, and I believe we will be able to agree on a legislative proposal that modernizes our legal immigration system, improves border security and enforcement and allows those here illegally to earn the chance to one day apply for permanent residency contingent upon certain triggers being met. However, that legislation will only be a starting point.

“We will need a healthy public debate that includes committee hearings and the opportunity for other senators to improve our legislation with their own amendments.

"Eight senators from seven states have worked on this bill to serve as a starting point for discussion about fixing our broken immigration system. But arriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American people’s consideration, through the other 92 senators from 43 states that weren’t part of this initial drafting process. In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret.”

March 30, 2013

Dolphins' celebs mostly silent in stadium campaign

In the rush of optimism after Steve Ross bought the Dolphins, he rounded up a glitzy cast of minority owners — including Marc Anthony, Emilio Estefan, the Williams sisters and Fergie — as a way to gin up a buzz around the franchise.

But at a critical moment for the organization, when every last vote is needed to pass a referendum for improving Sun Life Stadium with tax dollars, those luminaries have been noticeably out of the picture.

So too are the icons of the Dolphins’ glorious past, the Don Shulas, Dan Marinos and Larry Csonkas who made Miami’s football team a national brand and an object of civic pride.

With six weeks remaining before a possible vote on the plan, the Dolphins have no immediate plans to trot out their megawatt assets.

“We wanted to be respectful [in] utilizing star power to get our message across,” said Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, the team’s point man on the project. “This is, at the end of the day, really about economics.”

There’s another factor, of course. If you make rolling-in-dough superstars the face of your pitch to raise hotel taxes, Joe Citizen just might respond: “You’re loaded. Pay for the stadium improvements yourselves!”

More from Adam H. Beasley here.

MIA baggage-wrap wars continue, now with a campaign-style mailer

@PatriciaMazzei Photo (4)

Looks like that robo-poll asking voters a week ago about a baggage-wrapping contract at Miami International Airport showed that County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is pretty popular. 

A campaign-style flier that hit mailboxes Saturday shows a smiling Gimenez and asks Miami-Dade residents to "support" the mayor, who earlier this month vetoed county commissioners' decision to award the contract to the second-place bidder, Safe Wrap.

"Mayor Carlos Gimenez needs your help, defending our interests and tax dollars," the mailer says before asking recipients to call their commissioner to back Gimenez's decision.

A disclaimer on the mailer says it was paid for by TrueStar Group. Commissioners rejected Gimenez's recommendation to award the contract to TrueStar USA, the first-place bidder that currently encases luggage at MIA in clingy plastic. Commissioners said they could not trust the company because last year it asked for a reduction in its minimum annual payment to the county.

The commission is scheduled to take up Gimenez's vetoes at a meeting Tuesday.

March 29, 2013

Latin Builders question firm's Cuba ties


Contractor Odebrecht USA has invited construction trade organizations to attend an information session Monday on a massive new project for Miami International Airport called Airport City. But don’t expect to see the Latin Builders Association there.

The LBA will skip the session because a subsidiary of Odebrecht’s Brazilian parent company is renovating the Cuban Port of Mariel. That connection has put the Coral Gables-based Odebrecht USA in political hot water. Several county commissioners have opposed giving the firm any more work.

“We must be steadfast in our resolve for our brothers in Cuba,” LBA President Bernie Navarro wrote in a letter. “We can’t allow Odebrecht to traffic with our suffering. Our position is not negotiable.”

Navarro, however, made sure to call Gilberto Neves, Odebrecht USA’s president, “a class act.” “His actions and respect for this community are not the same as those of his corporate parent,” he wrote.

Navarro’s letter was distributed by Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee in Washington that has vocally complained about Odebrecht’s ties to Cuba. A handful of Miami-Dade cities have approved legislation opposing Airport City.

“I don’t know what’s driving them,” Neves told The Miami Herald’s editorial board last week about the cities’ resolutions. “I hope that the benefits of [the project] outweigh that.”

Obama makes quick stop under Miami's seaport


President Barack Obama traveled briefly to — and under — PortMiami on Friday afternoon to push for new ways to secure private dollars for big-ticket projects to renovate highways, bridges, pipes and schools.

Obama toured the port tunnel being built under Biscayne Bay and then praised the project as an example of the local, state and federal government working together, and with private companies, to grow the economy and create construction jobs.

“We still have too many ports that aren’t equipped for today’s world commerce,” the president said. “We’ve still got too many rail lines that are too slow and clogged up. We’ve still got too many roads that are in disrepair, too many bridges that aren’t safe.”

Obama spoke to port workers, business people and politicians gathered at a cargo shipping area lined with containers. He began by noting the spring weather and addressing what he called a “sticky subject” — basketball.

“I know you guys aren’t happy with my Chicago Bulls,” he said, as the crowd booed. “But I just want you to know the Heat are going to be just fine.”

“The Hurricanes, they had a great season,” he added. “Tonight you’ve got Florida and Florida Gulf Coast going at it ... So, let’s face it, Florida is the center of basketball right now.”

Then he turned to the matter at hand: infrastructure.

To promote more private investment in public projects, Obama proposed raising the caps on certain state and local bonds to lower project financing costs and making the bonds available to more types of projects; exempting foreign pension funds from taxes when they want to invest in U.S. infrastructure, as is already done for American pension funds, and spending an additional $4 billion for two programs that have provided loans and grants to projects.

More here.

Sachs maintains Broward residency by renting condo from consultant

Sen. Maria Sachs, a Democrat whose district was reconfigured because of redistricting to stretch into Broward County, maintains a residence in Fort Lauderdale by renting a condo from a prominent political consultant and gaming lobbyist. 

Sachs, vice chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, was re-elected to the Senate in November after a bitter election battle against former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. She told the Herald/Times she signed a lease to rent the condo on NE 9th St. in Fort Lauderdale from her long-time friend Judy Stern, but did not know she represented gambling clients. 

Stern is not registered to lobby in Tallahassee but represents Mardi Gras Casinos and Delaware North, a food service and gaming machine company, in Broward County.

 “Judy Stern and I go back many many years -- before I started in the legislature. We’re girlfriends,’’ Sachs said. “I didn’t know that those were her clients I think because she never lobbied me.’’

Continue reading "Sachs maintains Broward residency by renting condo from consultant" »

Citizens Insurance does $250 million risk transfer

As part of an ongoing effort to hedge against a massive hurricane disaster, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has completed a $250 million risk transfer in the capital markets.

The so-called catastrophe bond, which cost Citizens millions of dollars, could come in handy if the state gets slammed with a major storm between now and 2016. It follows a $750 million deal last year with the same company, Everglades Re.

Citizens said it was able to save more money on this year’s deal.

“This action continues Citizens’ goal of transferring risk to the private sector by working closely with nontraditional capital markets, and further protecting our policyholders and all taxpayers in Florida,” said Citizens board chairman Carlos Lacasa said. “Citizens has emerged as an international leader in risk transference and our achievements are being recognized by financial markets around the world.”

If Florida does not get hit with a big hurricane in the next three years, the bond investors will pocket the money, leaving Citizens with a smaller surplus.

The company is planning to announce additional risk-transfer measures in the coming days, including a multi-million purchase of private reinsurance.

Last year, a deal to buy reinsurance led to controversy at Citizens, because top officials traveled the globe to meet with insurers—staying in luxury hotels and dining on gourmet meals.

The company is hoping to bounce back from a year of tough publicity, and recently announced that it had reduced its risk of “hurricane taxes” by 42 percent. Some of that risk reduction ahs occured through higher rates on homeowners. Under a bill moving through the Legislature, Citizens would continue to raise rates--doing so faster than it has recently.        

Latvala predicts 'furor' if residents' email addresses are public

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was all by himself and he couldn't believe it.

In a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting Thursday, Latvala was the lone voice objecting to a bill to allow property appraisers to send homeowners tax notices and other official documents by email instead of through the postal service.

The bill (SB 7130) was presented by Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, and Latvala was shocked that it did not also include a public records exemption to keep homeowners' email addresses confidential. Latvala said if the email addresses are public, private for-profit vendors can obtain them under the state public records law, invade their privacy and solicit them for goods and services of all kinds.

"We're going to have a lot of our constituents that are going to get very angry and will want to know how people got their email addresses," Latvala warned his colleagues. "I've had the experience. I'm in the business. I know the furor that comes from that," said Latvala, a printer and campaign consultant who deals with supervisors of elections regarding voters' requests for absentee ballots.

"This is a big deal with the privacy of citizens," said Latvala, recalling the public outrage several years ago when it was discovered that motorists' personal driving records were being sold commercially to profit-making companies.

Hukill said that if public access to individuals' email addresses is a problem with her bill, it's also an issue with similar bills.

Latvala was the only senator from either party who voted against the bill. His stand likely will draw the attention of the First Amendment Foundation, which opposes a similar public records exemption for voters who request sample ballots by email.

-- Steve Bousquet

Legislature urges state worker raises; first time in 6 years

The Florida Senate and House rolled out their respective budget proposals on Friday. Both budgets are slightly bigger than Gov. Rick Scott's spending plan, and both differ from Scott's in one respect: Lawmakers want to give across the board pay raises to all state workers, while Scott favors bonuses to workers.

The House offers every state worker a $1,400 pay raise, which amounts to about 3.3 percent. The Senate budget includes a 3 percent across the board pay boost for all state workers, who have gone for six straight years with no increase in salary.

On teacher salaries -- Scott's top priority -- the House released a $74.4 billion budget on Friday that includes $676 million for pay raises for teachers, with half of the increase amount tied to merit-based teacher performance. The Senate matched Scott's proposal for $480 million in teacher pay raises but also stipulated that it be tied to performance. Florida ranks 45th among the 50 states in teacher pay.

The House's $200 million plan for construction and renovation at Florida universities is much more robust that Scott's $70 million proposal. The House budget includes a 6 percent increase in college and university tuition, and Scott has repeatedly said he opposes any more tuition increases.

"If you look at our budget and say, who is the big winner? The big winner is education," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

The Senate wants to set aside $2.9 billion in reserves, while the House would set aside $1.2 billion. Both chambers' budgets include half a billion dollars to shore up the unfunded liability in the state pension fund. Both budgets fall far short of the $279 million Scott requested for economic development incentivies to attract new jobs to Florida.

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, criticized the House GOP leadership for not including an expansion of Medicaid in its budget. Said Thurston said it was "highly doubtful" that House Democrats would vote for a state budget "that fails to adequately address Florida's health care needs."

Despite the current differences in all three spending plans, leaders will work to make compromises as the nine-week session enters its second half next week. "It's a nine-inning session, and we're in the fourth inning," Weatherford said.

-- Steve Bousquet