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Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

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"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.

The two entities will clean up this legal mess by settling both sets of allegations outside of court.

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Michael Freedman

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