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State gambling study faces questions early on


Published:   |   Updated: May 20, 2013 at 04:09 PM

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Spectrum Gaming Group suffered a virtual body slam once it was announced last month as winner of a $400,000 contract to study the present and future effects of gambling in Florida.
 
The New Jersey-based consultants were lambasted as “paid apologists” by No Casinos in Florida, an Orlando-based group that opposes gambling. The group was too cozy with the casinos; any report would be a “propaganda tool for the casino gambling industry,” according to a letter No Casinos sent to House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz.  
 
Its contract with the Legislature prohibits Spectrum’s project team from talking with reporters. Though if they could, they may well have said, “Trust us: We’re former journalists.”
 
To be sure, Spectrum employs an economist, an addiction specialist, and a raft of former gambling regulators, among others. But three of the top team members are former Press of Atlantic City reporters or editors, including one who spent three decades at the newspaper.
 
A perception of objectivity of the kind journalists pride themselves on is important to the study. It’s widely expected to become Florida’s blueprint for growth when it comes to gambling. The Legislature is expected to tackle a big gambling bill next year.
 
State government has taken its own blows over gambling recently.
 
Lawmakers hastily outlawed the storefront gambling dens known as Internet cafes after an investigation into the Allied Veterans of the World charity. It was accused of running a $290 million illegal gambling business where most of the proceeds wound up in its owners’ pockets.
 
At least 57 people were arrested and Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned; she had provided public-relations representation to the organization before her election. Carroll was not charged.
 
Then an administrative law judge ruled that state regulators wrongly granted a barrel-racing permit to a track in the north Florida town of Gretna. Barrel racing involves horses running around barrels and other obstacles. The judge’s ruling essentially said barrel racing isn’t a legal form of gambling in Florida.
 
When it comes to gambling, getting it right is important, said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, an independent government watchdog. The Legislature’s process suggests it did so with the gambling study, he said.
 
Lawmakers “used an open and competitive bidding process for this work, which is refreshing, given its history of no-bid deals,” Krassner said. “Since this is taxpayer-funded research, the vendor will have high expectations from the public to demonstrate objectivity and independence.”
 
The gaming study is divided into two parts, with reports due in July and October, for a total cost of $388,845.
 
The study will include a look at gambling regulation in other states, how to tax and make money off of it, and the social costs of gambling addiction and gambling-related crime.
 
The study will further investigate the state’s gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe, whose Florida operations include Seminole Hard Rock Tampa. And it will consider whether pari-mutuel centers across the state, such as Tampa Bay Downs and Derby Downs, should be authorized to offer slot machines and table games.
 
But it will also look at intangibles, like estimating those “Floridians who now do not gamble but would participate if additional gaming activities were easily available” and “visitors who plan a visit to Florida (because) of gaming here,” as well as “visitors who would choose not to visit Florida due to the presence of gaming activities.”
 
The fact that the lead consultants are former newsmen didn’t impress John Sowinski, No Casinos’ president.
 
“Even journalists go to work for the bad guys?” he said. “What’s this world coming to?”
 
The Legislature “picked the wrong folks to study the prospective side of the equation,” Sowinski said. “In terms of trying to come up with social and economic calculations, they have a conflict of interest.”
 
That’s the problem with hiring a consulting firm, rather than academics, to do this kind of work, he added: “You wind up getting a roll-out team for casino expansion.”
 
 
Steve Crosby, chair of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, says Spectrum is getting a bad rap. That state is gearing up to license one slots parlor and up to three casinos after it expanded gambling in 2011.
 
Spectrum provided Massachusetts a strategic and operational plan. Crosby called it “a big, fat plan that takes us from soup to nuts.”
 
“They are a part of the industry, they believe in the industry, but there’s no lack of integrity in the quality of their work, and no lack of objectivity,” he said.
 
Spectrum’s managing director, Michael Pollock, declined to be interviewed. A kind of gag order in the contract forbids the company from talking to the news media.
 
But his biography on the firm’s website lists him as a former editorial page editor of The Press of Atlantic City and a past spokesman for the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
 
Joseph Weinert, Spectrum’s senior vice president, spent 18 years at the same newspaper, where he covered casinos for eight years.
 
And Michael Diamond worked at the paper for 33 years as an award-winning “special projects writer, editorial page editor, statehouse correspondent and bureau chief, all while frequently covering gaming industry issues,” the website said. He later was an investigator with the New Jersey Office of Inspector General.
 
Katie Betta, spokeswoman for Senate President Gaetz, said the fact Spectrum had former journalists on the payroll wasn’t an issue for legislative staff members who negotiated the contract.
 
“They said it was not part of their discussion with the company,” she said. 
 

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