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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Jim Greer tried to get gaming regulator axed

19

August

From our friends at the News Service of Florida:

Former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer, on the payroll of a South Florida dog track, tried to get a gambling regulator fired two days before the veteran state worker was forced to resign, according to court records obtained by The News Service of Florida.

Greer is now serving an 18-month sentence in state prison after pleading guilty to money laundering and theft in connection with a scheme in which he created a company and then steered party business to it.

But while Greer --- hand-picked by former Gov. Charlie Crist to head the state GOP ---was party chairman in 2009, he was also working for the owners of the Mardi Gras Casino in Broward County, getting paid $7,500 a month as a consultant for entertainment and hospitality regulatory issues.

Four years later, gambling operators are still jockeying over lucrative pari-mutuel permits even as the Legislature explores how much --- and what types of --- gambling the state should allow.

A case involving the quest for a quarter-horse permit near Homestead, which could open the door for more slot machines in South Florida, demonstrates a tangled web of the relationships between gambling lobbyists, regulators and politicians.

The company Greer was working for was one of the “three loudest voices” opposing South Florida quarter-horse permits, according to Florida Administrative Law Judge R. Bruce McKibben.

McKibben in an Aug. 6 recommended order said the Department of Business and Professional Regulation didn’t do anything wrong by denying a permit to Ft. Myers Real Estate Holdings, a company trying to get the permit for the venue in Florida City, near Homestead. The permit, if issued, would allow a card room and possibly slot machines. Marc Dunbar, a lawyer who represented the Ft. Myers group, said it plans to appeal McKibben's ruling.

But the court documents and interviews with the players reveal a marked shift in the state’s handling of permits after Chuck Drago, Greer’s close friend and godfather of his oldest son, became secretary of the agency and after long-time DBPR Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering Director Dave Roberts was ousted.

Critics, including Drago’s deputy secretary Scott Ross, accused Roberts of issuing the quarter horse permits “like candy.”

Within a week after Greer demanded that Roberts be fired, Drago ordered Ross to terminate the regulator, Ross testified in the case.

Drago denies being asked by Greer to get rid of Roberts, targeted by South Florida tracks angry over the quarter- horse permits and other issues.

“Nobody asked me to have Dave Roberts leave. That never happened,” Drago said.

But Delmar Johnson, former executive director of the RPOF under Greer, said his old boss had “unfettered access” to Drago, who served as police chief in Oviedo while Greer was a city commissioner prior to becoming the GOP chairman. Greer also had access to Crist and his top two aides.

On July 14, 2009, Greer and Johnson met with Ross --- Johnson’s fraternity brother --- at Po’ Boys, a bistro close to RPOF headquarters in downtown Tallahassee frequented by Greer and his gang.

After the lunch, Greer took Ross aside and directed him to “fire your pari-mutuel director,” Ross told The News Service of Florida.

Ross, who had been on the job less than two months, said he refused. But Greer insisted, saying, “I’ve heard really bad things about him and he needs to go,” according to Ross.

Ross said he had no idea Greer, who never registered as a lobbyist for Hartman and Tyner, Mardi Gras' owner, was working for the dog track and slots venue at the time.

“Do I have an idea now why that ask was made? I can connect the dots,” said Ross, a lobbyist and gambling lawyer who worked for Las Vegas Sands before being hired by Drago in 2009. His client roster now includes Las Vegas Sands, one of several gambling operators trying to convince Florida lawmakers to approve “destination resort” casino-style gambling in South Florida.

Johnson also said he didn’t know that his boss had a side job as a Mardi Gras consultant when he arranged the lunch with Ross at Greer’s request.

“Greer had to meet Scott. We had to go to lunch. Scott had to be there, and I had to get Scott there and he wouldn’t say why,” Johnson, now an AFLAC insurance agent, said in a telephone interview.

After the meeting, “Greer was frustrated,” Johnson added. “He didn’t seem happy.”

Hartman and Tyner Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Dan Adkins said he hired Greer as a consultant for a constitutional amendment that would have lowered the tax rate on slot machines. That plan was dropped after lawmakers reduced the tax rate in legislation dealing with a compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Adkins said he never asked Greer to lobby for him and didn’t seek to get Roberts fired.

"Absolutely not. I had very little communication with Jim Greer during that whole time. He was on retainer strictly for the issue of running the constitutional amendment," Adkins said. “It’s just nonsense. Sorry. But the people playing the bad games here are Dunbar and Romanik.”

Dunbar has represented the Ft. Myers group, and David Romanik is a principal of and attorney for Ft. Myers Real Estate Holdings Inc. Romanik and Dunbar are both affiliated with Gulfstream Park Casino in Broward County and are both part-owners of a controversial track in the north Florida community of Gretna. The pair is frequently at odds with other South Florida pari-mutuels.

Greer’s lawyer Damon Chase claims Greer got his orders from Crist, who is now a Democrat and is expected to announce a bid for governor in October.

“Suffice it to say, Mr. Greer served at the pleasure of Charlie Crist during that time. Mr. Greer was steadfastly loyal to Charlie Crist and always followed instructions consistent with Mr. Crist’s agenda. Any involvement Mr. Greer would have had in this story would have been at Charlie Crist’s express direction,” Chase said in an e-mail.

Crist did not return calls seeking comment.

Drago, who left his post as DBPR secretary in November 2009 and went to work as Crist’s deputy chief of staff, said the former governor never pressured him about the quarter-horse issue.

“I never got direction that I can ever recall from the governor’s office one way or the other. The only concern was that they were kept in the loop as to what we decided. I never got any direction and I never even got a sense from the governor’s office that they wanted me to do anything particular,” Drago said.

Roberts left the agency the day after he inadvertently released documents to a lawyer for Mardi Gras, a competitor of Gulfstream, related to an investigation into a ring of Gulfstream workers who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from slot machines using free play cards.

DBPR officials at the time said that the public records fiasco had nothing to do with Roberts’ departure. Roberts now works as a lobbyist for Magic City Casino, the former Flagler Dog Track in Miami-Dade County.

But the depositions and testimony in the case show that the governor’s office was keenly interested in the quarter-horse permits.

For two years, Crist’s administration had been negotiating a deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to allow the tribe to operate slots. Lawmakers refused to go along with the first compact Crist signed with the tribe in 2007 and, in 2009, the Legislature was preparing to pass a bill approving the agreement, ultimately authorized in 2010. In 2004, voters approved slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, opening the door for slots on tribal lands.

Between September 2008 and February 2010, the agency issued nine quarter-horse permits, including five approved by Roberts. Races have been run at two of the facilities --- Gretna and Hialeah.

Three weeks after Roberts was forced to resign, Drago, Ross and the agency’s chief gambling lawyer, Joe Helton, met with representatives of Calder Race Course, Flagler Dog Track and Mardi Gras at Calder in Miami. Calder lobbyist Wilbur Brewton organized the meeting where the group aired concerns about the quarter-horse permits and suggested ways the agency could halt or at least slow them down.

The permits hadn’t resulted in licensed activities and thus weren’t bringing any taxes and fees to the state, the quarter-horse opponents pointed out.

State law imposed a restriction on other types of gambling permits, barring new facilities from opening within 100 miles of an existing track. But a loophole in the law did not include the mileage restriction for quarter-horse permits. The Legislature was expected to include the 100-mile restriction in a bill authorizing the compact with the Seminoles.

The South Florida tracks also believed that Roberts’s interpretation of the law relating to zoning requirements was too slack and complained to him about it, according to McKibben’s Aug. 6 order.

Gambling attorney John Lockwood told the court that “the special interests wanted Roberts terminated, because they were concerned with the quarter-horse application review process,” McKibben wrote.

Under “The Roberts Regime,” McKibben wrote, the agency would accept a letter from a land-use lawyer saying that zoning for the proposed location “was obtainable” from local authorities.

Lawyers for the quarter-horse opponents urged a stricter interpretation of the law that would require prior zoning approval before a permit could be issued.

After Roberts left, the agency adopted the proposed zoning requirements when considering the permits. DBPR officially rejected the Ft. Myers group’s permit in January, 2010, almost a year to the day after the application was first submitted.

Dunbar blamed Crist’s inner circle for the switch.

In the court filings, Dunbar and Romanik accused DBPR of stalling the Florida City permit until the 100-mile restriction went into effect, making approval unobtainable. After denying the permit, the agency refused to grant an administrative hearing on the issue. Romanik sued, and the 1st District Court of Appeal agreed that DBPR should have granted the hearing. The appeals court also ordered DBPR to pay nearly $80,000 in legal fees to the Ft. Myers group.

Ross said Dunbar is making “wide-ranging accusations of a conspiracy when there wasn’t one” because he disagrees with the different interpretation of the law.

“Nobody’s denying there was a philosophical change in how these were handled,” Ross said. “The interpretation was wrong. That’s why there was a policy change. You can see that the interpretation was wrong because to this day only one of them with the exception of Hialeah which has had a facility for decades is operational.”

[Last modified: Monday, August 19, 2013 6:00pm]

    

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