Will Casino Gaming Come to Florida?
For two years the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which owns “destination” casino resorts in Las Vegas and Pennsylvania as well as Singapore and Macau, has waged a quiet multi-million dollar campaign to bring casino gaming to Florida.
An army of expensive lobbyists have opened doors for the Republican Casino Mogul Sheldon Adelson, who controls the Sands corporation. Adelson’s campaign has included showering Governor Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) as well as key Republican Senators with campaign contributions.
A review of State records showed LVS giving RPOF $50,000 in December alone. In fact, they gave RPOF two checks, each for $25, 000, on the same day, bringing to mind the possibility that they were trying to disguise their de-facto violation of Scott’s ban on contributions in excess of $25,000.
The campaign by the Sands octogenarian Chairman, pro-Israel and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, reached its crescendo when Scott went to Las Vegas hat in hand to meet secretly with the casino mogul at his Venetian casino on the strip before being sworn in.
Florida reporters were told the Governor elect was flying on his own plane to a Governor’s conference. The stop-in Vegas was never disclosed. Scott flew to the the city, went directly the Sands corporate offices in the Venetian Casino for his meeting, then went directly back to the airport to fly on to the Governor’s conference.
The prospects for real casino gaming in Florida changed when the Florida legislature passed the Seminole gaming compact, which legalized black-jack by statute and without a constitutional amendment. That law was challenged in the courts and upheld, meaning the Florida legislature and the Governor could legalize casino gambling without a vote of the entire state. Adelson saw his opening.
Scott advisor Enu Mainigi signed off on the secret meeting between the aging billionaire and the Governor-elect without realizing the public furor it would unleash when the meeting leaked to the Miami Herald. Scott and Adelson met for 45 minutes and Adelson outlined his plan to bring up to five full fledged casino resorts to the Sunshine State.
After the Herald story, questions about the meeting dominated an acrimonious Scott press conference where the defensive Governor seemed to back off casino gaming without slamming the door.
A moronic Scott press aide hand-picked by Mainigi actually yelled, “Hey, stop trying to make press off of my guy,” not recognizing the right of the press to ask anything and the the fact that the Venetian meeting made the subject germane.
Senator Dennis Jones will soon introduce a gaming bill that was drafted by the Sands’ Florida lobbyist Nick Iraci. In putting forth “Sheldon’s bill,” Jones will be promoting a casino gaming expansion that Senate President Mike Haridopolos can buy.
It includes county referendum in those five locations chosen by a five member state gaming commission and a $50 million licensing fee and a requirement that only 10 percent of the resort space can be used for gaming. Adelson, who covets a Miami Casino, wants a 75 mile buffer between casinos, thus killing bids by the Fountainbleau or the Diplomat in Broward County.
Adelson is a controversial figure. Several years ago, he jettisoned his top casino company management, cutting loose some of the most respected casino operators in the world, including the charismatic former Sands President Bill Weidner. Since then, Adelson has run the company himself, leading to a precipitous drop in the Las Vegas Sands stock value.
Adelson was supposed to be the George Soros of the right but gained a reputation for making grandiose pledges of funds for the GOP and then “forgetting” his commitments. A Swift-Boat type effort for John McCain that Adelson had agreed to fund never got off the ground in 2009. Adelson hasn’t forgotten his commitment to the Florida GOP though, making heavy contributions to both State Senate and House campaign efforts.
The Adelson-Jones bill leaves out Florida’s pari-mutual facilities which feature poker at all locations and slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Recent revelations that then-State Representative David Rivera extorted a $500,000 payment to a shell company run by his mother from the Flagler Dog Track – who funneled him the money illegally without required public disclosure – has hurt the climate for inclusion for pari-mutuel facilities in the Jones bill.
Yet, Tallahassee uber-lobbyist Ron Book has told his pari-mutual clients the bill is dead in 2011 without their inclusion.
The Sands Director of Public Affairs Andy Abboud showed up to testify at a Senate hearing to outline the virtues of Sheldon’s gaming proposal, which he knew the committee chairman had already agreed to. Casinos could generate billions in new state revenue and create 50,000 direct jobs and 15,000 indirect jobs, so the timing is indeed right.
Adelson isn’t the only one shopping in Florida. Steve Wynn has retained former RPOF Chairman Al Cardenas as his lobbyist and Donald Trump is on the verge of a deal with wealthy partners on a choice Miami-Dade site. Harrah’s is reportedly seeking to option land in Florida and Penn National Gaming is said to be considering a casino bid.
Scott campaign pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio has done survey research for Penn and led them to a successful vote to legalize casinos in Ohio in 2009. Florida is $3.5 billion in the hole and tax increases to fill that gap are even more hated by the newly expanded Republican majority in both houses than casino gaming.
The Seminoles enjoy a casino monopoly, the result of funneling money to supposed “pro-bono” state negotiator George LeMieux through corrupt RPOF chair Jim Greer for a compact that pays Florida only $100 million a year; they gave $530,000 to Senate and House Republicans, but they stiffed Scott, giving him $25,000 to RPOF for his use and $25,000 to his Inaugural.
Meanwhile, the Seminoles gave Florida Democrats $500,000 to help Democrat Alex Sink in the Governor’s race. Although publicly flexible about his current position on gaming, Scott has privately vowed to smash the Seminoles’ casino monopoly. Five casino resorts would create thousands of construction jobs as well as good-paying casino jobs, fitting Scott’s jobs mantra. State coffers could collect new billions on his watch.
Few believe that Steve Wynn, whose wife is from Miami Beach, will let Adelson, who he cordially despises, take the crown jewel of gaming in Miami.
Trump was a financial backer of Scott and has numerous successful developments in the state. Trump’s agreement with Trump Entertainment, a company he sold, allows him to pursue the Miami license with deep-pocketed partners. Harrah’s is a gaming monolith. Penn has a track record of winning licenses. Sheldon’s dream of a Miami casino is no sure thing.