Will Vegas Style Casinos Come to Floirda

If Florida is going to be home to Las Vegas-style casinos, it has also got to have Las Vegas-style regulations, say the authors of a massive bill to bring resort casinos to South Florida.

That includes creation of a state gaming commission and a rule that casino operators give the state access to almost everything — including bank accounts, marital records, safe deposit boxes, computers and even their homes.

But, as with every element of this high-stakes debate, a tug-of-war has ensued between the two most powerful international players, Las Vegas Sands and Genting Malaysia.

Each would like to use the Florida regulations to give the other a disadvantage, and each wants to distance itself from the organized crime elements of the Chinese casinos to keep its regulatory record clean.

The bills, expected to be filed this week by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, would allow three $2 billion resort casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and create an independent gambling commission patterned after the strict regulatory boards of Nevada and New Jersey.

If approved, the proposals will put horse and dog tracks, jai alai frontons, poker rooms, Internet cafes, scratch-off tickets, sweepstakes games and full casinos — now regulated by three different state agencies — under a single appointed board. The lottery would not be regulated by the commission, nor would the Indian tribal casinos, which are not governed by state laws.

Drafts of the proposals indicate that members of the five-person gaming commission would have staggered terms and be appointed by the governor. They would have the power to decide which companies will be granted licenses for each of the three resort casinos and the qualification rules.

The commission would license casino owners, register anyone who works in a casino and keep out anyone who has a troubled record in another state or nation. It would conduct elaborate financial and criminal background checks on owners and key employees, and prosecute and fine anyone for violating state gambling laws. A separate board would have the power to police the casinos, conduct investigations and monitor finances.

The regulatory structure is “actually probably more important than anything else,” said Bogdanoff, a lawyer who researched casino regulations in other states.

The result is a hybrid between Nevada and New Jersey’s regulations, she said. Both states are considered the strongest in the nation and use a two-tiered system, with an independent gaming commission to license casinos and set policy, and a separate division to enforce and investigate. Both states ban gaming commission members from being involved in political campaigns or contributions.

The Nevada process is so intense that casino applicants “refer to the investigation as the most trying experience of their lives,” said Robert Faiss and Gregory Gemignani, authors of a new paper from the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Casino applicants in Nevada must agree to waive some legal rights, the report says. They are asked to disclose personal, financial, marital, legal and criminal information, and sign a release that they won’t sue state regulators because of conflicts arising out of the application process. They also must reveal assets, liabilities, tax information, business experience and bankruptcy history, and disclose where they are getting their investment money.

The Nevada gambling investigation also gets personal, the authors say. Investigators determine who the casino owners associate with — from friends and family to business acquaintances. They have the power to inspect homes, businesses and computer files. They can dig deep into the past and disqualify any applicants who show any sign that they have been untruthful, associated with a criminal, or have ties to organized crime.

Both the Las Vegas Sands and Genting, the two most powerful casino companies seeking to move into Florida, say they support strict regulations but privately doubt the sincerity of the competitor to want such scrutiny.

“We want something at least as comprehensive as the Nevada regulatory law,” said Nick Iarossi, lobbyist for Sands. “We wouldn’t want to put billions of dollars of capital at risk in an environment that wasn’t heavily regulated.”

Genting officials originally urged Bogdanoff and Fresen to leave the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation in charge of regulating gambling, but they now say they also support the vigorous regulation of a Nevada-style gaming commission.

“Genting supports a strict regulation process in Florida,” Jessica Hoppe, general counsel and vice president of government affairs for Genting’s Resorts World Miami, said in a statement.

But both Sands and Genting, which operate giant casino operations in Singapore and China’s Macao region, may have to proceed carefully if Florida adopts the same strict features of New Jersey and Nevada.

A company caught violating a gambling law anywhere in the world could lose its license in those states, said Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist and gambling law expert.

Genting came under fire in 2007 by Singapore’s gaming officials who forced the company to pull out of a partnership to build a casino in Macao because its partner, Stanley Ho Hung-sun, had been named by the U.S. Justice Department as a money launderer for the Chinese Triads’ organized crime syndicate.

Sands has also had challenges. It said in February that it is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits bribes to officers of foreign governments. Sands denies wrongdoing.

St. Petersburg Times