Florida chief judge wins Pinellas liquor license lottery

Pete Antonacci won the only license in Pinellas County. It’s worth about $445,000, one expert said.
Pete Antonacci, an attorney seen here in 2009, is Florida's chief administrative law judge.
Pete Antonacci, an attorney seen here in 2009, is Florida's chief administrative law judge.
Published June 30, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s chief administrative law judge won a coveted Pinellas County liquor license in the state drawing Tuesday, beating out 1,014 other applicants.

Pete Antonacci, a longtime loyalist of former Gov. Rick Scott, won the only open liquor license in the county, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was one of 62 winners for licenses across 30 counties. More than 23,000 entries were submitted across all counties.

The annual double-random drawing for quota liquor licenses held by the state has far better odds than playing the Florida Lottery, and it can be more lucrative.

A county gets one license for every 7,500 increase in population. For a $100 fee, applicants can enter to win.

Related: Florida's liquor license lottery can make you a ton of money. So why is it such a secret?

Unlike most beverage licenses, which are limited to beer and wine or a specific location, quota licenses are coveted because they can be used almost anywhere in the county that zoning allows.

The only ways to get one are to buy it or win it, and big chain liquor stores will often submit bids or buy them from quota winners.

In Pinellas County, Antonacci’s license is probably worth about $445,000, according to Josh Aubuchon, a Tallahassee lobbyist who represents craft brewers and distilleries.

“The demand is just going crazy,” Aubuchon said.

Florida has been using double-blind drawings for the licenses since the 1980s, according to Horace Alexander Moody, a former Levy County sheriff who commonly negotiates the sales of the liquor licenses through the private Beverage Law Institute he founded in Tallahassee.

“The purpose is to fairly get these licenses out into the market, without letting monopolies or politics control it,” Moody said.

Antonacci didn’t respond to requests for comment. He also submitted entries for licenses in Brevard, Duval, Leon, Manatee, Orange and Walton counties, according to the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, which operates the drawing. Applicants can apply once in each county.

Typically, winners aren’t as notable as Antonacci, a well-connected Tallahassee lawyer who has been named to a variety of boards and jobs by Florida governors since serving as deputy to Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth in the 1990s.

Related: DeSantis chooses Broward elections supervisor to lead powerful Florida judges

In 2012, he became Scott’s general counsel, where he was at the heart of the controversial firing of the head of the state police, Gerry Bailey. Bailey believed Antonacci forced him to resign for refusing to pay political favors. The ensuing legal dispute cost Florida taxpayers $700,000.

In September 2015, Scott appointed Antonacci to lead the South Florida Water Management District, one of the most important environmental jobs in the state because of its role in Everglades restoration. Environmentalists objected, claiming Antonacci was unqualified.

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In 2018, Scott named him to replace Broward County elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes, whom Scott removed from office. Antonacci won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for pulling off Broward County’s smoothest election in recent memory this year.

In December, Gov. Ron DeSantis chose him to be the state’s chief administrative law judge, overseeing an obscure but powerful group of state judges who handle government-related disputes from licensing issues to high-profile bidding challenges involving some of the world’s largest corporations.

Antonacci won’t be automatically eligible for a license. Like all “winners,” he will have to pass a background check and pay $10,750, which goes into a fund used solely for alcohol and drug abuse education, treatment and prevention programs.

This year’s winners are mostly from Florida, but some live as far away as California. The winners include Target Corp., which won a license in Sarasota County, and two Tallahassee-based lobbyists, who won a license in Leon County. Moody’s son also won a license, in Levy County.

“We haven’t decided what we’re going to do,” he said.