Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

With politicians in its pocket and more than a few violations under its belt, SunCruz sails into a port near you

White tigers, blinking neon lights, dancing showgirls, Siegfried & Roy, a tower or two emblazoned with the name "Trump" -- you're not going to find them in Riviera Beach. While it's true that the SunCruz V is, in essence, a floating casino, the boat's home base is no Las Vegas or Atlantic City. That fact was made crystal clear by the blond, heavyset woman dressed in a tuxedo shirt who, on a recent Thursday, greeted visitors boarding the SunCruz V with seasickness pills in hand. "Seventy-five cents a pair," she announced.

No one, unfortunately, took her up on the offer, even though the weather reports had been calling for nine-foot ocean swells. They were fooled, perhaps, by the placid-looking Intracoastal, where the water lapped lightly against the SunCruz dock. Noticing that nobody was going for the pills, the hostess offered chances to participate in the boat's poker game. Again, nobody bit.

The folks boarding the 160-foot-long, triple-decker boat were, by no means, high rollers. They weren't the younger tourists who, on weekends, board SunCruz's more lavishly appointed ship in Hollywood. For the most part, they were locals, retirees and workers with an afternoon off, who saw before them a boat that looked more like a Mississippi River steamship than a casino. We'll spend a few dollars, maybe win a few back, they were thinking, and in the meantime enjoy a pleasant afternoon out on the high seas.

On board they rushed the sumptuous-looking buffet while Bob, a long-haired singer wearing a green Hawaiian shirt, belted out "O Sole Mio" backed up by a preprogrammed synthesizer pumping out a Calypso beat. As the boat left the dock, all seemed as it should. The passengers had paid just five dollars to get on board, another five dollars for the all-you-can-eat buffet. Good-ol' Bob would entertain them as the boat cruised south along the Intracoastal toward the Lake Worth inlet. Beyond the inlet is the ocean, and just three miles out are international waters, where the gambling would begin.

What the passengers didn't realize is that SunCruz boats have sailed into murky legal waters in nearly every city in which they've set up shop. In the last eighteen months alone, SunCruz has been accused of crashing into docks, polluting protected waterways, and failing to obtain the permits needed to run a casino business. In fact the SunCruz V, on which the Thursday-afternoon patrons would spend the next five hours, was once the scene of a near-mutiny, with passengers and crew battling each other and the boat's captain refusing to return to shore.

Despite these accusations, the company -- which is owned by restaurateur, hotel magnate, and Hollywood resident Gus Boulis -- has continued to expand its operation, which in some cases has resulted in the alleged violation of local laws and/or regulations. It's able to do so for a number of reasons. At the top of the list: well-placed political connections; promises made to city officials; and lawsuits filed against agencies the company accuses of standing in the way of a legitimate business.

The biggest reason of all, however, is that the casino-boat, or "cruise to nowhere," industry is virtually unregulated in the state of Florida.

Since 1992, federal law has allowed ships of American registry to open casinos as soon as they've crossed the offshore three-mile line, beyond which waters are considered international. On land in Florida, two forms of gambling are considered legal and regulated by the state: racetrack and jai alai. Since 1989, gambling has also been legal on Indian-owned property, where it's regulated by the National Indian Gaming Commission. But cruises to nowhere, once they are in international waters, are not subject to Florida regulation.

Until four months ago, New York City was in the same boat. But early last year, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- pointing out that an unregulated, offshore cash business is vulnerable to organized crime and smugglers -- tried to have the three-mile line changed to twelve miles. At that distance boats would have to spend hours just reaching the mark, a drawback that would put most, if not all, casino-boat operations out of business. But the mayor's proposal was turned down in federal court. Last July, however, he did get the city council to vote unanimously in favor of establishing a gaming commission, which set up shop last December.

At the moment the New York City commission's sole responsibility is to conduct background checks on companies seeking to open a casino boat. But within the next few months, the commission will assume more wide-ranging responsibilities, including: calibrating slot machines, ensuring the integrity of the games on board, and auditing the casino boats' books.

Thanks to New York City's efforts, Florida is now the only state, out of the 31 that have legalized some form of casino gambling, in which the industry is completely unregulated. Some efforts have been made, however, to rid the state of casino boats altogether. In 1995, state legislators proposed a bill outlawing the cruises, but the proposal died in committee. More recently the state attorney general's office attempted to legally challenge the industry.

The challenge began in February 1997 when Chance Casino Ventures sailed into St. Augustine in St. Johns County. Soon after the company began operating a casino boat, St. Johns Sheriff Neil Perry noticed that slot machines were showing up in local taverns. The tavern owners evidently assumed that if a boat docked nearby was allowed to offer gambling so were they. As Sheriff's officers confiscated the machines, Perry researched the 1937 state law prohibiting their use and concluded that when a casino boat enters state waters, its slot machines, whether they're being used or not, are illegal.

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