Gambling's new political committee causes stir
By Scott Blake
The creation of a political action committee with the goal of a ballot initiative on gaming and recent political contributions from gambling interests have alerted opponents of the move to bring casino resorts to South Florida.
The scope of the new committee, named New Jobs and Revenue for Florida, is to have a statewide constitutional initiative on gaming, according to paperwork filed with the state this month.
The new committee's chairman is listed as longtime Tallahassee-based lawyer John French, once lauded as a "super-lobbyist" whose clients have included tobacco giant Phillip Morris, fast-food chain Burger King and utility giant Florida Power & Light.
Mr. French started his career in the 1960s as a legislative staffer and protégé to then-Gov. Reubin Askew. Now, with more than 40 years experience in the legislative process, Mr. French's expertise includes elections and taxation.
The new committee's treasurer is listed as Tampa-based certified public accountant Nancy Watkins, who has specialized in campaign accounting for more than 25 years and was once described as a "behind-the-scenes" player in Republican politics.
Ms. Watkins and Mr. French did not return telephone calls.
Florida anti-gambling group No Casinos maintains the "New Jobs" committee was created to sponsor a proposal for a constitutional amendment to legalize "high-stakes" casino gambling on the 2014 state ballot.
No Casinos suggested that Malaysian gaming giant Genting Group, as well as Las Vegas casino operators, are behind the committee.
Genting was at the center of last fall's debate and the failed legislative bid last winter to permit mega-casino resorts in South Florida.
Genting reportedly is considering scaling down its original plan for a $3 billion-plus casino resort along Miami's Biscayne Bay, where it has invested roughly $500 million in land purchases.
"It seems that after spending a half-billion dollars on real estate to build the world's largest casino in Florida, gambling promoters can't just report to their bosses in Malaysia and Las Vegas that Florida legislators said, "no" — so now they will try their luck with Florida voters," said No Casinos President John Sowinski.
Genting representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
State campaign finance reports filed this month show that Genting and its affiliates contributed $250,000 to Florida Democrats and Republicans in the first quarter of this year.
Genting gave $100,000 to Republicans, while a related group named Hill Brow LLC, headed by two Genting executives in Miami, Christian Goode and Jessica Hoppe, gave $150,000 to Democrats.
The casino groups may try to get a reduced initiative approved in Florida but could use it as a foothold to eventually grow their businesses, said Dan Gelber, chairman of South Florida No Casinos, a related Miami-based group.
"I have heard these groups are not giving up," Mr. Gelber said. "They may go to the legislature, or they may go to a statewide referendum."
They "took a beating last year," he added. However, "if money is no objectů it doesn't matter if the idea is rotten."
To read the entire issue of Miami Today online, subscribe to e -Miami Today, an exact digital replica of the printed edition.