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State renews war on casino boats

Attorney General Bob Butterworth has asked a court to force SunCruz Casinos to end gambling on its "cruises to nowhere."

Casino gambling is illegal in Florida, but gambling boats sail into international waters before they allow patrons to bet. It is a $500-million-a-year industry in the state.

In a complaint filed in Volusia Circuit Court this week, Butterworth asked Judge Joseph Will to force SunCruz to get rid of the slot machines, blackjack and roulette tables on a 150-foot boat that docks in Ponce Inlet.

"Attorney General Butterworth is trying to keep casinos . . . out of Florida," said Marty Moore, deputy general counsel with the Attorney General's Office.

If successful, Butterworth may go to other courts to try to shut down the 17 other ships that ferry gamblers from Florida docks out three miles into international waters.

Among his targets might be Paradise of Port Richey, the Pasco company that runs SunCruz's west coast operations. Two Paradise boats sail from the Pithlachascotee River in Pasco County and another docks in the Cross Florida Barge Canal in Citrus.

From time to time, the company also has operated boats from a marina on the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs.

A similar attempt by Butterworth's office to sink cruise ship gambling in 1997 was unsuccessful.

Then, a judge ruled against the state, and eventually the case was dropped because the boat state officials went after went out of business.

But Florida gained new ammunition when the U.S. Supreme Court in January allowed South Carolina to continue to shut down "cruises to nowhere."

State officials didn't say why they chose the Ponce Inlet ship as a test case.

SunCruz officials said they believe the state will lose again.

"Butterworth may think these are different waters to sail on, but this is nothing new," said Stan Driscoll, general manager of SunCruz's Daytona Beach office. "We believe he is in error."

The SunCruz III, which features 232 slot machines and 12 blackjack, dice and roulette tables, sails twice a day from its Ponce Inlet spot.

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet last year voted to bar the state from allowing gambling ships to dock at state facilities in future leases. That wouldn't apply to the SunCruz III until its lease is up in 2003, though. The Cabinet's ruling is being challenged in court.

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