Quality of Vice
Voters may not have known it, but the recent mayoral election was kind of a referendum on illegal gambling
by Kirk Nielsen
I pulled the lever for him, but I’m not sure I’d put money on Carlos Gimenez’s chances for success. To close a quarter of a million dollar deficit, the new Miami-Dade mayor will have to orchestrate radical cuts in county spending. He might have to invent creative new revenue streams, because he’s also pledged to lower property taxes. But I’d double down on this bet: Gimenez will never go for one new cash source that Hialeah and the City of Miami have tapped in recent years: licenses for video slot machines.
“If I were mayor, I’d definitely propose an ordinance to outlaw them throughout Miami-Dade County,” Gimenez said on political reporter Michael Putney’s Sunday morning talk show during the run-off campaign. “Because frankly, Michael, I believe that there’s organized crime behind this.” Which was to suggest that organized crime was behind his opponent, Julio Robaina, since slots purveyors contributed heavily to his campaign.
Robaina denied having ties to mobsters, of course, but he had to admit that slots suppliers had also donated heavily to his winning bid for mayor of Hialeah in 2008. And that he pushed through an ordinance licensing the devices, popularly known as maquinitas tragamonedas (little money-swallowing machines).
Picking up on Robaina’s gambit, Tomas Regalado followed suit in Miami. Video slots suppliers donated thousands of dollars to his successful mayoral campaign in 2009. He, too, sponsored a measure to license the machines.
It was creative municipal financing at its strangest. Police have estimated the average maquinita swallows $1,000 per week, or $52,000 annually. So the estimated 1,500 maquinitas in Miami bring their owners $78 million per year. By issuing a $500 license for each machine, Regalado stood to generate just $750,000 in new revenue. Enough for about two fire department executive salaries plus benefits.
But there was a larger problem: the slots are illegal. Florida law permits video slots only in authorized establishments, like Calder Casino & Race Course, Gulfstream Park, and Magic City Casino (whose owners contributed heavily to Gimenez’s campaign).
So, two weeks after the new law passed, Miami police seized about 400 maquinitas from bars and cafes, and charged about 30 people with illegal gambling. “The confiscations were conducted as a part of Operation Lucky 7, an ongoing operation designed to rid Miami of these devices that are often rigged to rip off customers and generate untaxed earnings for businesses in violation of state law and local ordinances,” an October 2010 MPD press release stated. Miami police chief Miguel Exposito is “committed to the elimination of these devices that do a disservice to the customers, who fall victim to illegal gaming,” and the machines “diminish the quality of life of all Miami’s citizens,” it said.
Of course, even legal casinos rip you off and can even corrupt your quality of life. Any nicotine-saturated, chain-smoking slots addict can attest to that. But Miami’s maquinita industry has an added luster: a connection to The Corporation, the deadly Cuban exile outfit who waged an arson war with Italian mobsters in New York City in the 1980s, killed a few dozen people, and made almost a billion and a half dollars over a four-decade run. The racket included bolita (numbers), bookmaking, and video slot machines.
In March 2004, a task force of Miami-Dade police, FBI agents, and other agencies, arrested 25 people, including The Corporation’s top boss Jose Miguel Battle and his son Jose Miguel, Jr. The former died in 2007, a year after changing his plea to guilty; the latter is a third of the way through a 15-year prison sentence. Two hit men who pled not guilty are serving 20-year and life terms. Most others plea bargained, served short sentences, and are now free. Among the crimes in a 2005 racketeering indictment in the case were four arsons in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx in the mid-1980s that resulted in eight deaths; and five premeditated murders in NYC, as recently as 1992.
In the end, federal prosecutors focused on the bolita side of The Corporation. But information I obtained in 2007 while reporting on the case, and which the U.S. Attorney has now sealed, indicated that Miami-Dade detectives surveilled several maquinita suppliers and monitored their phone calls because they were associates of Corporation members. Some of those same suppliers are now suing Chief Exposito to get their confiscated machines back. I hope they keep their retaliations in the legal system and off the streets.
While campaigning Carlos Gimenez said that as mayor he’d call for a task force to determine “who’s behind” the maquinita enterprise. But such an effort seemed already in full swing. Miami police seized more maquinitas this past March and April, as did Miami-Dade cops in June in the Westchester section of Miami. Odds are the crackdown will continue, which could only make big corporate casino owners flush with appreciation. The House always wins.