|By Mary Ellen Klas and Matthew Haggman,
The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 1, 2008 --Owners of Miami Beach's Fontainebleau hotel have put money into a new political committee formed by two developers who want to explore bringing casino gambling to Miami.
The Committee for Critical Challenges amended its campaign report filed with the Division of Elections last week to include a $30,000 contribution from the Fontainebleau. The donation was made Sept. 24, the same day The Miami Herald first asked consultants hired by the group about the committee formed by developers Art Falcone and Marc Roberts.
The pair is developing the 25-acre Miami Worldcenter in downtown Miami and has hired lawyers to write a proposed constitutional amendment allowing a casino initiative for possible placement on the 2010 ballot.
Drafts of the proposed petition language obtained by The Miami Herald call for Las Vegas-style casino gambling, including craps, keno, roulette, blackjack and slot machines. The games could be offered at the Miami Worldcenter location, any of seven existing parimutuels in Miami-Dade or Broward and the now dormant Hialeah racetrack, and a hotel in Miami Beach that has "over 800 lodging rooms" -- a designation that applies only to the Fontainebleau.
Howard Karawan, the Fontainebleau's chief operating officer, said "the contribution was made for consumer research," to pay for a poll on voters' views on gambling in general, as well as on gambling at Indian casinos and racetracks.
"They talked to us about participating more, but we haven't made any decision one way or the other," he said. He also said that the Fontainebleau's executive vice president, Sonny Kotite, has been spending "a couple of hours a week" pursuing the prospect of the gambling initiative.
The revelations about the Fontainebleau's relationship with the political committee come as Falcone, Roberts and their consultants have been aggressively trying to send the message that the committee is just an "exploratory committee" that will propose new ideas for Miami's city center and is not intended solely to focus on gambling.
But of the $1.2 million the committee has raised -- with all but the Fontainebleau donation coming from Falcone and Roberts' companies -- nearly all has been spent on amassing expertise for a gambling initiative.
The committee lined up petition-gathering firms, political consultants, lobbyists and lawyers, almost all with an expertise in casino gambling.
'GAMING ONE OPTION'
Falcone, a Boca Raton businessman who is partnering on the project with Roberts, a former sports agent, said that in addition to casinos the group is considering developing an international trade center and an aquarium.
"Gaming is one option we are exploring," he said.
The committee has also hired former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre and paid him $50,000 to head up the "Committee of 21," a separate economic development committee that will come up with a blueprint for Miami's future and seek to force changes in local government. Ferre said the group may try to get voter approval for changes to the urban development line, transportation projects and the recommendations of the charter review committee, he said.
Ferre said he is "outta here" if the group proves to be a front for a casino initiative.
"I told them I'd be happy to look at it as long as it's not limited to a casino issue," he said.
Until this point, the committee's $870,000 in expenditures have gone to a who's who of political players. No one but Ferre appears to have economic development experience.
"If the people we hired are suited or not well suited, I don't know," Falcone said, adding that the hires were handled by public relations consultant Michael Caputo.
Since June, the political committee has hired 13 petition gathering firms from across the country and a polling company from Washington. It brought on Ferre and gave $20,000 to Ferre's close associate, Eli M. Feinberg.
It has also hired: Richard Grellner, a former Oklahoma Gaming Commission attorney; the Florida law firm of Holland & Knight; Patton Boggs, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that represents gaming clients; Roger Stone, the Republican political operative who formerly did casino work for Donald Trump; The Markham Group, a Tallahassee political consulting company that represents gambling companies; and the Boca Raton law firm of Weiss, Handler, Angelos & Cornwell.
For months, Falcone and Roberts have kept quiet about their interest in exploring gambling as they sought local government approval for their multiphase development on nine blocks between the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts and Miami's central business district.
The men first spoke about the casino option when The Miami Herald asked them about it last week. Falcone said he has not spoken with any city and county leaders about having a casino in downtown because it is too early.
"We are in front of the city council on a plan we spent quite a bit of dollars on; we plan on fulfilling what is exactly in our plan," he said. "People in America can explore different options for different things."
Bringing full casino gambling to Miami will not be easy, however. It requires changing the state constitution, mounting a petition drive for a constitutional amendment and winning 60 percent of the statewide vote -- a challenge proponents say could cost as much as $100 million. Voters have rejected calls for casinos in 1978, 1986 and 1994.
Although the committee has paid for potentially hundreds of paid petition gatherers to arrive in Florida at one time, Falcone said they have ruled out the prospect of starting to gather signatures for a constitutional amendment between now and Election Day.
Staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.
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