Facing South Florida: Gambling In South Florida

On Sunday's edition of Facing South Florida, Jim DeFede explored the shadowy efforts of a small group of wealthy men and powerful lawmakers to bring Las Vegas-style casinos to South Florida.

Video Transcript

- Now, from CBS 4 News, this is "Facing South Florida" with Jim DeFede.

JIM DEFEDE: Good morning. I'm Jim DeFede. And welcome to "Facing South Florida." Later in today's show, I speak with Art Acevedo, who has been hired to be Miami's next police chief. He's currently the Houston chief, but he has some very interesting ties to Miami.

But first, I think we should discuss the shadowy efforts of a small group of wealthy men and powerful lawmakers to bring Las Vegas-style casinos to South Florida. As the Washington Post and the Miami Herald first exposed, there have been secret negotiations for months involving the top Republicans in Florida. One of the men trying desperately to pull this off his billionaire Jeffrey Sopher, who wants a casino license for the Fontainebleau hotel he owns on Miami Beach.

He has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into Republican coffers and lobbied legislators onboard his mega yacht, even bringing in Tom Brady and his wife, Gisele Bundchen, to impress the lawmakers. Also in the mix, former president Donald Trump, who would like to turn the Doral Country Club into a casino.

All of this is being done in secret. There is no bill in Tallahassee. Instead, what will likely happen is the casino language will magically appear in a bill without anyone having the time to understand what is happening. This week, I spoke to three men who have been fighting the casino gambling interests for years-- Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber, developer Armando Codina, and businessman Norman Braman.

DAN GELBER: In 2018, voters, by 71%, voted for a measure statewide entitled Voter Control of Gambling in Florida. And we are hearing right now that in back rooms-- I think more so on yachts and in private planes than in back rooms-- some very ambitious people are trying to subvert the will of the voters of Florida by essentially forcing into communities like mine casino gambling over the will of the people, without complying with the Constitution, and really, with an intent to make a very few people incredibly wealthy at the expense of all the cannibalized businesses and suffering that's going to occur.

So we expect any day, and we haven't seen it, a measure to come out in the legislature that will allow permits like slots and things like that to go from where they are to anywhere, perhaps in my town, at the Fontainebleau, perhaps. And included in the measure will be a requirement that local governments cannot even stop them from doing it, even though all of our land ordinances do not even allow for casinos in our city.

JIM DEFEDE: And you mentioned the Fontainebleau. That's the one that's been most notable, because the owner of the Fontainebleau has been actively courting the legislature and leaders in the legislature to allow this to sort of happen. Am I wrong with that?

DAN GELBER: No. If you call actively courting spending over a million dollars in campaign funds and putting them on his plane and yacht, yes, it's actively courting.

JIM DEFEDE: And the other part of it, too, is it could go the Fontainebleau. It could go to the site that Genting has, the former Herald location. Or it could also-- Eric Trump has actually talked about the idea of bringing it to the Trump Doral land and have a casino there, correct?

DAN GELBER: Those are the three obvious places. And frankly, if this system works, ultimately, you'd end it at least in those three, and perhaps more. You'd end up with casinos in a lot of places.

JIM DEFEDE: Let me come to you, Norman. Why do you oppose this, what's taking place here? Is it just a general opposition to gambling? Or is it also about the process by which they're using to try to bring gambling to South Florida?

NORMAN BRAMAN: Jim, our community has come a long way. We now have a high-tech industry building here. We have the financial industry moving here. All this is contrary to what casino gambling would affect. As you know, I was instrumental in bringing Art Basel here. And I can tell you that Art Basel has stated publicly that if casino gambling comes to this community, they will seriously consider moving out of Miami and going somewhere else.

It's the same situation that applies to the high-tech industry and the financial industry. None of that is located in Las Vegas or any of these other gambling areas in the country. Gambling takes its toll on the local community. And that's my major objection to it.

JIM DEFEDE: Armando, let me bring you into the discussion. What is the basis of your opposition?

ARMANDO CODINA: Norman and I are a team on this one. And how did we get there? We got there because two weeks ago, neither Norman and I had heard anything about this. We were both surprised. So we have come together. And I'm glad to be fighting this with Norman.

Nothing grows on the shadows of the casino. Casinos are very selfish. You don't know if it's 3 o'clock in the afternoon, 3 o'clock in the morning. They subsidize the food. They subsidize the entertainment.

It would have been devastating. And look at what's happening in Miami Beach. So I think we didn't need it then. And I think, as Norman expressed, we certainly don't need it now.

JIM DEFEDE: Mr. Mayor, let me bring you back in. I mean, a lot has changed over the years in terms of people's attitudes towards gambling. Gambling is pretty much everywhere. I'll even hear people in the back of my head saying to themselves, we have lotteries. We already have gambling.

You've got the Seminole. You've got the Miccosukee. You've got all these other areas that are using gambling. Why not bring it to high-end facilities like the Fontainebleau, like Trump Doral, and have the tax revenue that would come along with it?

DAN GELBER: First of all, the tax revenue is a ridiculous argument, because all that casinos do is cannibalize other businesses and export the money in the community to either a few people or to some foreign interests. It never stays in the community. And as Mr. Raymond always says, name the community in the United States with casinos that you want to be.

And destination casinos in the town centers of our community, in downtown Miami, in downtown Doral, in downtown Miami Beach, right on Collins Avenue-- that would destroy those important areas. But it also clearly wouldn't be the last three casinos you have. You'd end up with slot machines in markets, because that's what happens when you start to open it up.

And the preemption is very important. My city has passed ordinances saying you can't have casinos here. Our commission, as recently as a couple weeks ago, said we don't want it. And every commission has done that for decades.

Voters in 2018-- this isn't a long time ago. Three years ago, 71% of Florida voters said, voters want to be in charge of this. That's how devastating it can be, not even the legislature. That wasn't what the amendment said. 70%-- that's more than voted for any person in Tallahassee making this decision right now.

So the point is, the moment you drop these huge casinos into parts of the town centers of our community, you redefine those places. We're no longer an art and culture town. We're no longer a financial institute center. We're no longer a professional center, or an import-export area from Latin and South America, or anything like that. We're a casino town.

And obviously, these guys want that. I think they believed the pandemic would create a fertile ground for them to convince people that this was the only way out. But I did a ribbon cutting this morning. I can tell you, this community, all of Dade County-- it's going to come back very strong.

And right now, I think, as both my colleagues said a moment ago, people are coming here. And they want to invest in our community in wonderful areas-- in knowledge-based industries, in art and culture. I've never seen the kind of interest in our community that there is right now. Why would we cannibalize and destroy all that to help a couple people get another yacht or ship or just give some company the ability to make a huge amount of money somewhere else in the world? That makes no sense.

NORMAN BRAMAN: Yeah. And this was the same-- and Jim, that type of logic was the same logic that was used in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And all it did was create a major catastrophe after the casinos opened on the community, on the residents. And now, as you probably saw, Mr. Trump's former casino in Atlantic City that went bankrupt a number of years was blown up.

And there's not-- the FBI statistics show that whether it was riverboat gambling, or stationary casino gambling, or any type of gambling, there is no community in the United States today that the gambling people can name that is better off today after gambling than it was before gambling.

JIM DEFEDE: I think the three of you understand that when you have the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, and the governor in line on something, it's going to get done. What makes you think that you can stop this at this point? Because if they want to cut a deal in the back room, they'll cut that deal. And there's not a lot that we can do about it before the session ends. Dan, let me throw it to you. Go ahead.

NORMAN BRAMAN: You know, Jim-- you know, Jim, this is really an anniversary. It's a 10-year anniversary when we removed Carlos Alvarez as mayor of Miami-Dade county. And that was done by the people of the community that decided to remove the mayor of Miami-Dade County for raising taxes during the beginning of a major recession.

I trust the will of the people. I trust the process. I feel that we have an excellent opportunity to persuade these public officials to withdraw this legislation and withdraw it quickly. I think there's a lot of legal issues involved here. I welcome both the state attorney here in Miami-Dade County, the US Attorney's office to look how this whole thing occurred. This is a pay-for-play situation.

JIM DEFEDE: Dan, let me just--

NORMAN BRAMAN: [INAUDIBLE]

JIM DEFEDE: --let me just-- Norman, let me just jump in. Dan, you know, you tell me, because as I said, you're a veteran of Tallahassee. When money collides with the will of the people in Tallahassee, doesn't money usually win?

DAN GELBER: You know, not always. And by the way, this isn't the first time-- this has come up every session. Agreed, there seems to be a lot of push. But there's been a lot of push when they've been behind closed doors. Now, it's sort of open. And people are going to sort of wonder, why is the governor, why are these Senate and House leaders meeting with billionaires on private planes and yachts to decide something that they believe should be a decision of the voters?

And I would say this to some of them, because I was up there. And I disagreed with my Republican counterparts quite a bit. But I always believed many of them, if not most of them, came to a good place, perhaps through a different route.

I don't think any of them want this as their legacy. I can tell you something. In 10 years, if this happens, they're going to look at what they did, and they are going to regret it and have to explain it and say, yeah, I guess that was a mistake. Yeah, well, the guy offered a lot of money to the party.

And I know that according to the papers, just the Fontainebleau and its interests have given over million to the legislature. I think shame, at some point, sets in. Modesty sets in, but also a desire not to be known in your life as someone who did one of the worst things possible to their own community. And I think that's what's going on right now. I think they're going to rethink it as soon as they think about the way this is going.

JIM DEFEDE: We'll be right back with Miami's new police chief, Art Acevedo, when we come back.