Cruisin' for a Bruisin'
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.
Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth was called in for a second opinion, and his office came to the same conclusion as Perry. Together Perry and Butterworth filed a lawsuit in February 1997, requesting that St. Johns County prohibit the Chance Casino boat from operating in St. Augustine. But before Judge Richard Weinberg could even hear the case, the boat left town. No vessel, no case, the judge ruled.
"When the boat left, the court decided that the company didn't need to answer any questions," Perry says. "I wish they had to, because now some other jurisdiction will have to deal with it."
Despite the opinion of the attorney general's office, it can't file a similar suit without a specific request from a local government, according to Assistant Attorney General Kent Perez. Such a request would be welcomed, he says, because, as Mayor Giuliani has already pointed out, an unregulated casino-boat industry could lead to a host of law-enforcement problems.
"We don't know at any given time how many ships are out there, and I don't know how much money is involved," Perez explains. "You don't necessarily know who the company is or who the players are. There's just no regulation."
In the absence of a commission set up to oversee the casino-boat industry in Florida, it's easy for a company, no matter what its background, to set up shop in just about any city port. When the SunCruz V docked in Riviera Beach, it was virtually welcomed with open arms. On opening night, March 27, SunCruz invited city staff, council members, and the city manager to climb aboard the SunCruz V for an evening of high seas gambling. (Absent was Mayor Clara Williams, who says she was sick that evening.)
They were joined by more than 300 other guests, including Palm Beach County employees and members of the local chamber of commerce, who were wined and dined for five hours -- docked in the marina. As it turns out, the captain decided not to take the boat out because of high winds. While the guests were allowed to play games of chance, the money went to charity. At the end of the night, each guest was given two free passes for another trip, along with a souvenir key chain and a five-dollar chip.
Evidently city officials, like the passengers on the recent Thursday-afternoon cruise, were blissfully ignorant of SunCruz's troubled past. Consider the following:
*Just a month earlier, a SunCruz ship began offering cruises out of Tarpon Springs, a small Gulf Coast town north of Tampa. Although the town requires a business to have an occupational license in order to operate, SunCruz didn't have one. It also didn't obtain a liquor license, even though alcoholic beverages are served on board.
SunCruz soon wouldn't need either license. As the 100-ton vessel arrived in port one Sunday night last month, it suddenly lost power and careened into two pillars supporting the dock. A yacht was tied to the dock, and as the pillars fell and the dock collapsed, the yacht was pulled down with it. The Coast Guard is investigating the incident.
*In September 1997, a SunCruz boat became stranded in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico one night when it ran out of fuel on its way back to port in Crystal River, also just north of Tampa. Without power the boat's gambling equipment, food concessions, and toilets were inoperable. In fact, because they couldn't be flushed, many of the toilets overflowed. For more than two hours, approximately 100 passengers milled about in the dark while waiting for a towboat to arrive with additional fuel. When the boat finally arrived in Crystal River at 2:30 a.m., SunCruz gave each of the passengers a coupon book for their trouble. The boat's captain, Michael Winton, simply forgot to get gas before leaving the port, according to a Coast Guard report. His punishment: a formal letter of warning, stating that he'd been negligent.
Winton responded with a letter of his own, admitting his guilt and explaining that, as soon as he realized the gas tank was running low, he anchored the boat and checked on the passengers. He noted that he has since developed a new refueling procedure.
SunCruz's executive vice president, Greg Karen, dismisses the stranded boat and the accident in Tarpon Springs as isolated incidents. "Accidents do occur," he offers.
*Six months before the empty-tank incident, the SunCruz V slammed into a dock in Hollywood and caused $5000 worth of damage after a steering mechanism broke and prevented the captain from going in reverse. Nobody was injured, and the Coast Guard found no evidence of negligence. But since the accident, people living in the neighborhood near the Hollywood dock claim that yet another SunCruz boat has crashed into docks on a number of occasions.
Steve Welsch, a Hollywood activist who owns the DeSoto Oceanview Hotel less than two blocks from SunCruz's dock, says that on several occasions, at approximately 1 a.m., he's heard the thud of the boat hitting the dock. Hours later, he claims, he's seen workers using pile drivers to repair the pilings that have been knocked from underneath the dock.
Karen dismisses these accidents as well. Even if the boat hits the dock, he explains, only minor damage is done. "We don't come in at full speed," he says.
When a business wants to set up shop in Riviera Beach's municipal marina, the application process is pretty simple: Obtain an occupational license, then sign a contract with the city.
SunCruz's contract was slightly more complicated than most, because the company wanted to cut a five-year deal in which no other casino boat would be permitted to dock in the marina. During negotiations, in late 1996, SunCruz offered to make $125,000 worth of improvements to the marina, including adding snazzy blue canopies to the SunCruz dock, installing safety railings, and painting the dock and concrete pilings. SunCruz also promised to put two dollars from each ticket toward further marina improvements. In November 1996 the city council unanimously approved the contract.
Even though the contract was signed, the council had plenty of time, before SunCruz actually moved in, to look into the company's history. Some of the problems had been reported in Gulf Coast newspapers and on local TV news programs. Even if those out-of-county sources weren't particularly accessible, a simple background check would have revealed details about SunCruz's checkered past. But in Riviera Beach a background check is not required.
George Carter, the municipal marina director, admitted that a boat like the SunCruz V could cause problems at his marina. But, he said, he was never told to do a background check.
"I'm a long-time city employee, and I follow directions and I follow rules," he explained.
When Mayor Williams was contacted, she claimed she'd heard nothing at all about the past SunCruz incidents.
"I would think that the boat master or the Coast Guard would have looked into it," she said. "And I would have thought our attorney would have looked into any potential problems."
A mention of those problems evidently didn't have any effect on the mayor. On April 17, two days after she spoke with New Times, she stood in front of the SunCruz office building at the municipal marina and accepted a giant cardboard check for $780, the money raised at the opening-night gala. Endorsed by SunCruz, it was made out to the Boys & Girls Club of Riviera Beach.
As the SunCruz V entered international waters on a recent Thursday afternoon, its hull pounded by nine-foot swells, at least some of the passengers were wishing they were back in Riviera Beach. On the third deck, Althea Chilicote, a short, middle-aged Lantana resident, attempted to negotiate the stairs leading to the second deck while other passengers stumbled by, making jokes about being drunk, when in fact they weren't. Chilicote, meanwhile, leaned against the railing with both hands as she stepped gingerly down each step.
Twenty minutes later, a woman in the slot-machine room announced that she'd lost all her money. Not too much later, Fred Bellio announced that his wife, Thelma, had just lost her lunch.
An hour later, a handful of people were playing blackjack at the first-deck tables, but most of the boat's passengers were either sleeping or trying to fight seasickness. One overweight gentlemen, sitting on a bar stool, was slumped over a slot machine. On the bench behind him, a woman cradled her head with her hands.
Those who were expecting a Vegas- or Atlantic City-like experience knew that they'd made a mistake. They would have been much better off in Mississippi, where state legislators legalized gambling eight years ago. The biggest reasons for legalization, according to Warren Strain, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Gaming Commission, were the following: 1) to regulate the industry; 2) to reduce the threat of organized crime; and 3) to attract extra tax revenue, which amounted to $240 million from casino boats alone in 1997.
One benefit, in particular, would interest SunCruz's seasick passengers. When Mississippi went legal, the casino boats no longer needed to sail into international waters. So they remained docked, and eventually the dockside ships were converted into Vegas-like casinos. In contrast to SunCruz V's low ceilings, dim lighting, and one-man Calypso band, Mississippi's casinos offer bright neon lights, high ceilings, cascading waterfalls, bigtime entertainment and, of course, a view of calm waters. There's also not a seasickness bag in sight.
Legalized gambling in Florida, however, has proven to be a tough sell. Voters have rejected the idea in three separate elections over the past twenty years. In just eight years, meanwhile, Florida's cruise-to-nowhere industry has grown from five ships to twenty-seven. With seven ships in its fleet, SunCruz is the largest casino-boat company in Florida and expects to add three more vessels by the end of the year. Because SunCruz is privately owned, it is not legally required to report its annual income. Nor was Karen willing to reveal that information. But Florida's one publicly owned casino-boat outfit, Europa Cruise Corp., has three boats and reported $21 million in income in 1997 but paid no tax at the state or local level.
"Theoretically," Strain observes, "if Florida were set up like Mississippi, you'd be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars to the state."
If Florida were set up like Mississippi, Ann Rotman probably wouldn't have a SunCruz story to tell.
In March 1997 the Davie resident invited 70 guests to board the SunCruz V in Hollywood and help celebrate her birthday. When the guests arrived, a few noticed a small sign indicating that rough seas may be ahead. But the skies were clear, and the Intracoastal appeared calm. Besides, the guests were there to party, and in the backs of their minds they figured that any good captain would keep his passengers out of danger.
They were wrong.
As soon as the boat hit the ocean, it began to rock and shake. Although there was no storm, waves crashed against the boat and strong gusts of wind swept across the top deck. As the boat swayed, chairs slid across the floor, and guests stumbled and fell. Those who couldn't even stand were slumped facedown on blackjack tables. Even some dealers lay sprawled on the floor. Hardly anyone was gambling.
"I looked at my husband's cousin, and he says, 'I never get sick. I love boats,'" Rotman recalls. "And as he said it, his face got whiter and whiter, and then he got sick."
As more guests became ill, some asked the crew if the boat could return to shore early.
Instead of turning the ship around, the crew brought out cots for the elderly patrons. Panic soon set in, and passengers, some groaning and screaming, fought each other for a stable pole or piece of the bar to grab onto.
"Tables were flying overboard, and some of the patrons were hysterical," recalls Sharon Morrison, who was a SunCruz waitress at the time. "There definitely was an uprising. Someone was even going to jump overboard. Some fights were starting to break out because people were afraid."
One woman, Mona Lee Prieto, called the Coast Guard on her cellular phone for assistance. But a crew member grabbed the phone, smashed it into bits, and detained her and her boyfriend. Another SunCruz employee slammed handcuffs on a nearby table repeatedly and threatened to lock the couple up if they didn't behave. (Prieto and her boyfriend later sued SunCruz, which settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.)
"If you want to get down to it," Morrison says, "that boat should never have gone out, because people could have been injured. It was very, very rough."
Speaking on behalf of SunCruz, Karen explains that the boat captain was in fact trying to turn back when the panic turned into hysteria. "As I recall, [Prieto] was restrained because chaos started to break out," he says. "People got ill because of motion sickness and forced the situation on the marine crew."
Witnesses, however, say the boat captain had no intention of heading in until Prieto called the Coast Guard.
In such a situation, the captain is the sole authority in deciding whether or not conditions are too rough to continue. Each casino-boat captain must be Coast Guard-certified, and if his actions are deemed negligent, he can lose his license. Of course, if he heads for shore every time the wind blows, he can lose his job.
The sole authority at SunCruz is owner Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, a Greek native who immigrated to Canada in 1968 and began working at a Toronto sub shop. He learned English gradually but rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a well-paid executive by the late '70s. He soon moved to Key West, and in 1990 he started the Miami Subs chain of fast-food restaurants, of which there are now 198. But Boulis, age 49, isn't only into subs. Over the last couple of decades, he's invested in casino boats, hotels, and restaurants throughout South Florida and the Florida Keys.
He's also racked up thousands of dollars in fines. In 1993, for example, when he was building a resort hotel in Key Largo, the state Department of Environmental Regulation (now known as the Department of Environmental Protection) fined him $22,900 for illegally building beaches and destroying the shoreline.
Earlier this month Monroe County took Boulis' SunCruz to court. Since 1994, when the company began offering cruises out of Key Largo, nearby residents have complained about increased traffic and noise generated by the boat. They also claim that on several occasions SunCruz boats have crashed into docks and run into smaller boats, according to Garth Coller, a Monroe County land-use attorney. The county claimed that, although the boat operates from Boulis' marina, SunCruz has violated the law by running a business without a permit.
"His assertion is that he can put anything he goddamn wants in his marina, and he is not subject to any permits," Coller says.
But the hearing officer, David Kirwan, found no wrongdoing, saying that, according to Monroe County law, casino boats do not need permits.
Seventy-five miles north, Hollywood residents face identical problems, only they feel it's the local government, not the law, that's working against them.
The battle began in August 1995, when the owner of Martha's Supper Club on the Intracoastal asked the city for more parking than zoning regulations allowed. In a show of good will, neighborhood residents didn't object. A few days later, a SunCruz boat docked at the restaurant's marina, and ever since then, residents have been fighting to get rid of it.
"There's sort of this overall concern here that he's going to change this nice beach community into a mecca for gambling," says Larry Gierer, an activist who moved out of Hollywood because he was tired of fighting development.
Less than a hundred yards from the SunCruz dock along the Intracoastal is a community of small homes and inns that cater to tourists seeking a quiet seashore vacation. But the Hollywood boat, which is much bigger than the SunCruz V, and attracts a younger, rowdier clientele, has altered the environment. When the boat pulls into the dock at about 1 a.m., the quiet neighborhood is suddenly overrun by noisy, in many cases drunken, passengers who disembark en masse, all of them searching for their cars.
Much to the chagrin of nearby residents, Boulis has proposed building a multistory parking garage for SunCruz customers. At present many of them park illegally, simply because there are not enough public and private parking-lot spaces for everybody.
"Certainly the city has done everything [it] can in accommodating [SunCruz]," Welsch states. "I'm just not sure what they give to the city that makes [the city] bend over backward for them."
In truth Welsch has a theory. In Hollywood, Boulis is planning a $50 million project, referred to as "Diamond on the Beach": a seventeen-story hotel and retail complex expected to bring about $120,000 in property taxes and 640 jobs to the city. Mayor Mara Giulianti and some of the city commissioners are so enamored with this plan, Welsch says, that they don't want to rock the boat by antagonizing SunCruz.
"One would almost believe that he is holding a gun to their head because he's got the Diamond on the Beach hotel, and they want the Diamond on the Beach hotel," Gierer says.
The mayor disagrees. In an interview with New Times on April 17, she said that she'd been so busy running for office earlier in the year that she wasn't able to concentrate on the SunCruz issue. Now that she has more time, she promised to meet with Boulis and discuss both the casino and the progress of the hotel. She said that, if it were up to her, there wouldn't be casino boats in the city.
"I have been told it's legitimate, and we don't have the right to say whether or not it should have been here in the first place," she explained.
She pointed out that Harry Deal, the city's director of code enforcement, had been citing SunCruz for parking violations on a daily basis. If the violations were to continue, she said, the matter would be given a judicial hearing on April 21, with the possibility that a judge could decide to fine SunCruz up to $500 a day.
When April 21 arrived, however, the hearing did not take place.
The reason is that Hollywood City Manager Sam Finz had already solved the parking problem at a private meeting with Boulis a week earlier. While he wouldn't go into detail, Finz told New Times that, after meeting with Boulis, he suggested to Deal that he "hold off on the citations," because Boulis had promised to rectify the parking situation.
"Rather than cite them and go nowhere," Finz explained, "my goal is to get him to do something to solve this problem, and he [has already] agreed to build a garage."
Of course Boulis has been promising to solve the parking problem since he brought SunCruz to Hollywood.
"He may not do it," Finz conceded. "And obviously if he doesn't do it, he would be in violation again."
Hollywood isn't the only place where political connections have come in handy for both Boulis and SunCruz. Boulis' companies have contributed $13,050 to various state legislators since 1996, according to state records. Add to that relatively small number the more than $400,000 contributed, during the same time period, by racetracks and half a dozen other casino-boat companies, and it may help explain why Florida continues to allow casino-boat gambling to go unregulated, says Costa Vatikiotis, city manager of Tarpon Springs, the Gulf Coast town where SunCruz failed to obtain licenses and crashed into a dock.
Vatikiotis points out another potential problem: SunCruz's general counsel for its boats in that region is state representative Larry Crow (R-Palm Harbor), who also happens to be a member of the house environmental regulation committee.
Might that be a conflict of interest, Representative Crow?
"Well, no. Um, yeah. As a matter of fact, it isn't," Crow says from his Tallahassee office. "As an attorney, I am able to represent anyone for any reason."
Maybe so, but as an attorney who is also a state representative, Crow has been able to hold off the arm of the law.
Back in March 1997, when SunCruz was planning to drop anchor in Crystal River, residents protested, arguing that the river itself is a state-protected natural habitat for the endangered manatee. It's so shallow in spots that even small boats sometimes scrape bottom, thus damaging the riverbed. A SunCruz boat, they argued, would do even more damage.
"You can't just come into every little city that has a tiny little boat dock and put a three-story boat there," says Cathy Evilsizer, a Crystal River resident who has put together an anti-SunCruz Website.
But SunCruz ignored the protests and moved into Crystal River in September 1997. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) promptly demanded that SunCruz halt operations until the state agency could determine what, if any, environmental problems the company's presence could cause. SunCruz ignored the order, and three days later the boat ran out of gas in the Gulf of Mexico.
Although the captain has admitted to forgetting to fill the boat's gas tank, Crow claims that the boat was sabotaged.
SunCruz continued operating, and on September 30 the DEP's law-enforcement office cited a SunCruz captain for cruising in the Crystal River and "polluting" the waterway by stirring up the riverbed.
Still SunCruz continued to operate.
Two weeks later, the DEP arrested another captain on the same boat for the same offense. Feeling the pressure SunCruz quietly left Crystal River in November and moved to nearby Tarpon Springs, where the DEP once again cited the company, this time for digging up the ocean floor and turning a commercial-fishing facility into a recreational marina without approval.
SunCruz sued, saying the DEP was selectively enforcing the law.
"We're the biggest [casino-boat company] in the state," Karen says, "and at the moment everybody else is not expanding, and we just happen to be in some sensitive environmental areas."
Which is exactly why the DEP has sued SunCruz, seeking reparations for damage done to both Crystal River and the waterways near Tarpon Springs.
And that's where Larry Crow comes in.
Because of the demanding schedules of legislators, Florida law stipulates that a continuance must be granted for any outstanding case involving legislator-attorneys until a legislative session has ended. This year's session wraps up May 3, which means that SunCruz has been able to stall for months and continue to operate in environmentally sensitive areas despite the alleged infractions.
Crow concedes that his relationship with the controversial SunCruz may appear unethical. But he says it's not.
"Here's the thing," Crow insists. "People may think they hired me because I am a legislator. But they hired me in 1991. I became a legislator in 1994."
Maybe so, but the suits of which he was put in charge were filed within the last few months, just as Crow was getting ready for this year's legislative session.
With few exceptions SunCruz has used political connections and aggressive litigation to continue operating in various cities and towns. For the moment, at least, they have not had to battle with anyone in Riviera Beach, where, as that recent Thursday-afternoon cruise came to a close, the passengers lined up at the door, eagerly awaiting terra firma. A few of them listened to Bob, who was still entertaining the troops with Calypso versions of "Fly Me to the Moon," and "Are You Lonesome Tonight."
One of them, Fred Lanier, even said he'd be back, despite spending most of the cruise either asleep or tending to his girlfriend's sick daughter. His Elks Lodge was planning to board the SunCruz V the following week.
"I paid my dues this trip," he announced, leaning against the railing on the boat's upper deck. "Last time I took some home, but this time I left some here."
He was referring, of course, to money.
Nearby, Thelma Bellio lay facedown on a table, a seasickness bag in her left hand. Like lots of people who board a SunCruz casino, passengers and city officials alike, she hadn't realized five hours earlier what she was getting herself into.
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