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Almost immediately after Greek tycoon Gus Boulis was gunned down in his BMW on February 6, Fort Lauderdale police investigators began scrutinizing SunCruz Casinos.But a look at the short list of owners of the cruise-to-nowhere company that Boulis founded turns up nothing resembling violent thugs or organized crime figures. Instead it shows prominent Republican Party members with long-standing, deep ties to the religious right.
SunCruz executives Jack Abramoff and Ben Waldman are walking examples of the strange and sometimes uneasy alliance between the family-values party and the gambling industry. Both men have strong ties to the Christian Coalition, which is adamantly opposed to gambling. And both were affiliated with the Reagan administration before leaving government service for careers with conservative causes.
Abramoff, SunCruz's vice president, has been connected to the Christian right since he was a student at Brandeis University, where he served as the head of a conservative group called the College Republicans. In that position he enlisted a young Ralph Reed as his top deputy; the two have remained close friends ever since. After graduating from Georgetown University law school in 1986, Abramoff later went to work in the Reagan White House and played an integral role in starting the Christian Coalition with Reed.
Waldman, the company president, served as associate director of Reagan's White House Office of Public Liaison and in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1988 he began work as press secretary and top aide to Pat Robertson during the televangelist's run for the presidency. (Robertson now directs the Christian Coalition.) Waldman then staged two failed bids for a West Virginia congressional seat in the 1990s.
There's an easy answer to the question of how the pair reconciles affiliation with both the Christian Coalition and the gambling industry, says company spokesman Mike Scanlon, also a GOP lobbyist. (Abramoff and Waldman declined to comment.) Both Abramoff and Waldman are Jewish, and the basic tenets of that faith don't preclude gambling, he says. "Jack is a deeply religious man himself; he's a conservative, Orthodox Jew," Scanlon says. "But there is no conflict in his religion with representing or owning gaming interests. Gambling is permissible by their religion."
That explanation doesn't wash with the Rev. Tom Grey,executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "Bullshit," says Grey, who belongs to the United Methodist Church. He accuses the Republican Party of selling out to the big money of the gambling industry, a view shared by Christian Right stalwarts like former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Focus on the Family president James Dobson. "It's hypocritical for the Republican Party to talk about family values when it's promoting a business that destroys families," Grey adds. "What politicians want to do is say the right things about gambling and then take the money it gives them."
There is no question that Abramoff and Waldman, who are both in their early forties, give SunCruz considerable governmental clout in an industry that relies heavily on the kindness of politicians.
Abramoff is a lobbying powerhouse who has been paid millions of dollars by the Choctaw Indians of Mississippi to keep Congress from taxing revenues made at their casinos. He also represents E-lottery.com, which provides Internet services to state lotteries. In December he joined the Miami-based law firm of Greenberg Traurig, bringing $8 million worth of annual lobbying business with him, according to Scanlon. Last July he was featured in a Wall Street Journal article that called him a "GOP strongman" in Washington because of his pull with Republican leaders such as Tom DeLay, the majority whip in the House of Representatives, and Texas Rep. Dick Armey. Gaming interests have filled the campaign chests of some Republicans, including DeLay and Armey, say antigambling activists. "Tom DeLay blocks all antigambling legislation," says Mark Harrison, a Capitol Hill lobbyist who works for antigambling forces. "The industry runs all the money through him, so he blocks the bills." (DeLay's office in Texas didn't return messages from New Times.)
At present SunCruz faces little threat on the national level; a bill that would have banned gambling cruises to international waters was killed last year. But the industry has voiced concern about new attorney general John Ashcroft, another Abramoff friend, who has professed his opposition to gambling in all forms. And President George W. Bush, while he has made no promise, has said he doesn't support the gambling business. "Jack has a relationship with the President," Scanlon says. "He doesn't have a bat phone or anything, but if he wanted an appointment, he would have one."
On the state level, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, has been trying (and failing) to shut down SunCruz for years, but Scanlon says he doesn't expect that kind of combative relationship to continue. "Bob Butterworth had issues not only with the day-cruise industry but also with Gus as an individual," Scanlon says. "We've reached out to the [Florida] attorney general's office, and we intend to follow not only the letter but also the spirit of the law. We are far different people than Gus Boulis and prior management."
The most powerful man in the state, Gov. Jeb Bush, hasn't embraced the gambling industry. But he has taken little action to curtail it. "As far as I can tell, he's not in favor of gambling expansion, but we have no reason to believe he is antigaming," Scanlon says.
SunCruz has high hopes. The company, which owns 11 cruise ships and employs about 1000 people, plans to double the size of its business in three years. And Abramoff is currently touring countries where SunCruz wants to introduce cruise-ship gambling, including Israel and Hong Kong. At the time Boulis was murdered, company chairman Adam Kidan, also an active Republican and campaign contributor, was in Israel trying to drum up business, Scanlon says.
Such expansion may engender controversy, but Abramoff and Waldman are no strangers to that. Abramoff spent the late 1980s and early 1990s in Hollywood as a movie producer. The United Nations placed one of his films, Red Scorpion, about a Soviet spy who ultimately joins U.S.-backed forces, on a boycott list in 1993 when it was discovered that South Africa, still under apartheid at the time, supplied the set with military equipment. And in 1994, the year Republicans took over Congress, Abramoff joined a Seattle law firm and began his lobbying career with the help of close ties to Newt Gingrich and DeLay. A year later he represented Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was widely considered a corrupt despot and was labeled an "obstacle to democracy" by the U.S. State Department. Abramoff also made a bundle lobbying for the Northern Marianas Islands, an American commonwealth that human-rights advocates say is little more than a legal sweatshop. The islands are exempt from immigration and minimum-wage laws; for the past several years, Abramoff has been successful in persuading Congress to keep them that way.
Waldman, for his part, worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Reagan-era scandals, and then left for a job with Joseph A. Strauss, who had started a company designed to garner federal funds for developers and landlords. Another of Strauss' employees was thenInterior Secretary James Watt. Allegations of kickbacks surfaced, and in the early 1990s both Strauss and Watt were investigated and convicted of various felonies. Waldman was never charged.
Kidan, Abramoff, and Waldman formed an ownership group that bought SunCruz for $147 million from Boulis this past summer. After the murder, the media turned to the company in part because Boulis and Kidan had been carrying on a public feud. Newspapers quoted Kidan complaining Boulis had attacked him during a business meeting and was out to kill him. Kidan and Boulis accused each other of cheating on the deal, and Boulis filed a lawsuit claiming SunCruz had bounced millions of dollars in checks for the sale and was delinquent in paying him millions more.
At press time Fort Lauderdale police hadn't yet interviewed SunCruz executives, but they are researching the company, says police spokesman Mike Reed. No one at SunCruz, though, seems particularly concerned. The company wants only to show Boulis' family respect and get on with business, says Scanlon. The marriage between Republican leaders and the gambling industry is perfectly natural, he adds. "I don't think gambling is antifamily at all," Scanlon says. "Gambling doesn't destroy people -- people destroy people. The gentleman or gentlewoman who decides to gamble makes that decision of his own free will.... It's a free-market industry, and that appeals to conservatives."
At Abramoff and Waldman's urging, politicians are likely to help the company succeed, says Grey, the antigambling crusader. "They could stop this industry, but they won't," he explains. "Florida seems to be against gambling, but they let it continue. Both parties -- it's not just Republicans -- have used gambling as a feeding trough. Used to be the Mob went to Las Vegas to fill its pockets, now it's [to] Congress."