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Gambling opponents raise doubts about independence of company hired to write report

Despite hours of testimony hearing about the state's gambling industry, and two years debating whether to open Florida to resort casinos, the Florida Legislature this year decided to spend $388,000 in taxpayer money to hire an outside consultant to study the state's gambling market.

Senate Gaming Chairman Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican who has never served on a gaming committee, said the study was necessary to help lawmakers next year in their efforts to conduct comprehensive rewrite of the state's gambling laws. Senate leaders persuaded the House to go along and the contract was signed last week with Spectrum Gaming Group, a New Jersey-based gambling consulting company, and announced on Tuesday.

Now the contract has drawn sharp criticism from gambling opponents.

 “Spectrum is part of the roll-out team for a casino expansion," said Les Bernal, Executive Director of Stop Predatory Gambling, a national opposition group to government-sponsored gambling based in Washington, DC.

“Their phony jobs and revenue numbers will be used to rationalize a bigger government-gambling program for Florida. And then later, like what happened recently in Massachusetts, they'll get a consulting contract about how to set up Florida's casino regulatory program after the expansion is passed.”

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, a gambling opponent supported by Disney and Universal, and Mark Andrews of Florida Casino Watch, question how independent Spectrum's report will be.

"We need help in understanding what the effect on families and life style will be if we embrace mega casino expansion," wrote Andrews in a statement. "Doesn’t a 'gaming company' specialize in casino success? How can they address the problems of addiction, bankruptcy, expanded crime and suicide?"

"...Can we expect to see a candid study of gambling’s devastation to families by an academic group supported heavily by casino money?"

Sowinski noted that Spectrum's business portfolio includes broad services to the casino industry and Spectrum is affilated with Spectrum Gaming Capital, which helps finance casinos.

"So every casino built is a potential Spectrum client down the road,'' he said. 

“The people of Florida deserve an honest assessment by objective analysts, not a taxpayer funded propaganda tool for casino interests,” Sowinski said. “The Legislature needs to either change course, or know that $400,000 of taxpayer money will be wasted on a report that no objective observer will believe."

Spectrum sponsors the annual Florida Gaming Congress, held this year at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood. Marc Dunbar, lawyer for The Stronach Group, which last year hired former Senate President Mike Haridopolos to serve as its executive vice president, serves as the Congress' host. Haridopolos gave the keynote address at the gambling summit.

UPDATE: Katie Betta, spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, said in a statement that "Spectrum neither advocates nor opposes legalized gambling or its expansion; rather, they specialize in gaming research and regulatory consulting."

She said the reports Spectrum did Massachusetts, Connecticut and other states "are public documents (available on their website). People can evaluate and determine for themselves whether they are comprehensive, independent and candid. Most of Spectrum’s work is on behalf of government clients. When they work for private clients, they conduct research, not advocacy."

Finally, the Florida Gaming Congress "is a forum for all voices involved in the gaming debate,'' Betta said. "The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association – which strongly opposed the most recent gaming legislation – participated in the Congress, as did the Council on Compulsive Gambling."