You Scratch My Back, I Write You a Bill

Gottlieb and Geller reward Hollywood for its generosity with a big, fat payback.

The slots are coming. Once Florida lawmakers work out the finer details, gamblers will be able to pull the levers at Broward County's four pari-mutuel facilities — Gulfstream Park and Hollywood Greyhound Track in Hallandale Beach, Dania Jai-Alai in Dania Beach, and Pompano Park in Pompano Beach.

The gambling machines will generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue, a portion of which will go to Florida's struggling public schools.

But don't mention slots to city officials in Hollywood. They're not happy with the current arrangement. Three of the four pari-mutuels — Gulfstream Park, Hollywood Greyhound, and Dania Jai-Alai — are located just outside the city's borders.

Steve Geller loves to cut Hollywood deals.
Steve Geller loves to cut Hollywood deals.
Ken Gottlieb (left) loves throwing money around.
Meredith Hill
Ken Gottlieb (left) loves throwing money around.

Mayor Mara Giulianti believes that because of increased traffic associated with gambling establishments, Hollywood's mutual aid agreements for police and fire services with Hallandale Beach and Dania Beach will drain city coffers. So Hollywood wants a piece of the action.

"If something happens at Dania Jai-Alai and Dania services are not available, the call automatically goes to the City of Hollywood," says Lorie Mertens, Hollywood's director of intergovernmental affairs.

Hollywood officials previously refused to back the slots vote after they were unable to strike a deal with the area's pari-mutuels. Now, Hollywood wants state lawmakers to force pari-mutuels to pay up and has even hired a lobbyist, former County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, paying him $45,000 to lobby specifically on the slots issue.

Fortunately for Hollywood, two of its most trusted representatives have come to the rescue. Rep. Ken Gottlieb and Sen. Steve Geller have sponsored bills in the state House and Senate, respectively, that would compensate Hollywood for having the slots palaces nearby. The bills were later altered so they would benefit other adjacent cities, including Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Park, and West Park.

"I try and do what's in the best interests of my constituents," Geller says of the proposed legislation.

But helping Hollywood may also be in the best personal interests of Gottlieb and Geller. Both of the politicians have done private business with Hollywood. In fact, in Gottlieb's case, the state representative has a pending deal before the city that could make his company millions of dollars.

A former Hollywood city commissioner and a current Democratic state representative who serves parts of Hollywood, Miramar, and Pembroke Pines, Gottlieb is in the process of negotiating a sweetheart development deal with Hollywood in which he's teamed with Cynthia Berman-Miller, a Hollywood political insider and former city employee with no development experience.

In September 2005, Gottlieb and Berman-Miller submitted a development proposal to Hollywood's downtown Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for a project called "Metro Hollywood." They've asked Hollywood for roughly $8.2 million in development incentives on a project estimated to make a $7.5 million net profit, not including about $2 million in sales commissions that likely will go to a real estate company owned by Berman-Miller's mother (see "Access Hollywood," February 16).

After the details of the project have been negotiated with city staff, the City Commission, acting as the CRA, will vote to approve the project and any associated incentives. The commissioners are likely to remember the representative who helped them with the slots legislation.

In other words, Gottlieb is sponsoring legislation that could pour millions of dollars into Hollywood while, at the same time, he waits for Hollywood City Commissioners to hand him millions of dollars in development incentives.

Gottlieb claims the two deals aren't connected. "As a state representative, I am obligated to represent the interests of my constituents, and that is exactly what I have done," he says. "I filed HB 867 to protect the municipalities bordering the Broward pari-mutuels with slots to provide financial relief from the costs of increased traffic and lost business. This includes Hollywood, Aventura, Pembroke Park, Fort Lauderdale, and West Park. Your continued insistence that a conflict of interest exists regarding my company's dealings with the Hollywood CRA is completely baseless."

Geller, meanwhile, also denies that his private business dealings with Hollywood have anything to do with the efforts he's making for the City in Tallahassee. In December 2004, Geller helped Texas-based developer JPI negotiate a deal with the Hollywood City Commission that allowed JPI to buy a parcel of downtown land worth $2.1 million for just $58,000 (see "Geller's Giveaway," Bob Norman, January 13, 2005). When he isn't working for JPI and other developers, however, Geller is a Democratic state senator who represents parts of Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Dania Beach, and Fort Lauderdale. But when New Times asked if he thought it was proper that a state senator should be moonlighting as a lobbyist for developers in the very district he represents, Geller, an attorney, denied that he was lobbying at all.

"I practice zoning and land use law, which sometimes requires appearances in front of local governments, just as being a litigator requires appearances in front of judges, whose salaries are set by the Legislature," Geller says. "Zoning and land use law is not 'lobbying,' according to the City of Hollywood code."

But no matter what he calls himself, Geller helped JPI win the plum land deal. And now, the Hollywood City Commission that came through on the fire sale is in turn getting Geller's help in the state Legislature.

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