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Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

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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.

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Michael Freedman

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