You might think the millions of dollars the industry throws into Florida campaigns is all it takes to earn the undying love and loyalty of elected officials. But Dan Adkins, South Florida's preeminent non-Seminole gambling impresario, has taken it a step further: His firm, Mardi Gras Gaming, is turning our local politicians into local TV stars.
I first caught wind of this new phenomenon while watching This Week With Michael Putney on the ABC affiliate, WPLG-TV (Channel 10). Toward the end of the half-hour, newly elected Broward County Commissioner Ken Keechl, who has one of most distinctive combovers this side of Donald Trump, kept popping up in promotional spots touting a new political and educational show called South Florida Sunday.
I stayed tuned for the show, which was identified on the screen as paid programming. So who was footing the bill? The answer came with a jingly Mardi Gras Gaming commercial, one of a number of ads appearing periodically throughout the show. Starring in the ad was Adkins, whose Mardi Gras empire includes what used to be called the Hollywood Greyhound Track and more than 1,100 slot machines. He's a sharp-looking, hard-driven character who loves him some gambling.
"We have the most Las Vegas-style slot machines in South Florida history," he says in the commercial. "But the best part, aside from all the fun and incredible payouts, is that half of every dollar you spend goes to Florida education."
Then the show begins in earnest. After a rather dry political soliloquy by Dania Beach Mayor Bob Anton, the real host of the show takes over. It's none other than Broward County's own dark prince, Evan Jenne, the 24-year-old freshman Florida legislator and son of scandal-plagued Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, who is currently the subject of a federal corruption investigation.
The son looks a bit like his father, only balder. The youngster, in fact, is so hairless and colorless that he resembles Dr. Evil, or maybe more like Mini-Me. And he's much more smarmy than his dad, which might make him even more dangerous.
Jenne introduces himself and begins gabbing talk-show style with Adkins and fellow rookie state lawmaker Joe Gibbons, a former Hallandale commissioner. They're longtime friends and act like it. Adkins, after all, has backed both men, along with one of their fathers, with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
In fact, it's Adkins who rules the table, as both freshman representatives gush about the gambling business.
"Actually, this truly does benefit the entire community, not just one segment of it," Gibbons says of the slots while Adkins and Jenne look on earnestly. "The city has negotiated with this legislation its own deal, in a sense. I think our deal actually allows us to get one and three quarters of a percent up to the first $250 million?"
He looks at Adkins for the answer.
"Correct," Adkins says, bestowing the expected blessing.
"And two and half percent of everything over $250 million," Gibbons continues. "We're going to have a larger police department, a better fire department, and a better police department funded by gaming."
Jenne, the trusty MC, chimes in: "Yes, because it's not as if these are new gaming sites being created either."
"No," Adkins confirms. "The four pari-mutuels have been in existence since the 1930s, for the most part offering gambling products... It's a very good point... It's not really an expansion."
So the pari-mutuels have been pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a huge non-expansion. Gibbons talks about how the entire state is getting millions in education money. "With the education differential, some counties will receive actually more education money than Broward County, and we're the county that has the impact," he says.
Don't know if I'd be bragging about that one, Joe.
Jenne oozes in. "Good point," the sheriff's son says. "Any other thoughts on the subject, gentlemen?"
This is Adkins' cue. He talks about the history of pari-mutuels, pointing out that, at one time, the tax revenues they generated made up 10 percent of the state's budget. This apparently awes Jenne, who lets out a breathless "wow."
"Talk to me about the legislative issues coming up in the 2007 session, Danny," prods Jenne.
How else would Jenne and Gibbons know how to vote in Tallahassee? Adkins says the tax rate which creates all that wonderful education money needs to be lowered. He says the pari-mutuels need tax credits so they can continue to not expand, or, as he put it this time, "grow the pie larger, if you will."
When Adkins is finished, Jenne says, "Great, terrific," doing the best Bill Lumbergh I have ever heard.
Then comes a clip of state Rep. Steve Geller, the lawyer/lobbyist serving as a veritable spokesman for the gambling industry, repeating Adkins' to-do list for the legislature. Then Jenne is back hosting, this time with Keechl, who thankfully doesn't talk about gaming. It ends with one more of those Mardi Gras commercials.
Jenne failed to return my phone calls for comment. Guess he only does TV now. Plus, I never contributed to their campaigns.
Gibbons did get back to me. He said he was called to do the "educational" show by Bill Henkel, who is president of Florida Educational Television, the Fort Lauderdale company that produced the show.
Gibbons, who has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from pari-mutuels, said he's been a huge supporter of the gambling industry for years. I asked him if he plays the slots.
"No," he said. "But if I had $20 or $50 and I was there, I'd throw it into a slot machine. It's entertainment. I like to go to shows. The slot machine would be my performer."
I asked him if he was worried about appearing too cozy with the industry, especially since gambling creates addicts and playing slots isn't exactly a model activity for the citizenry. Sitting down and feeding money into a noisy, lit-up box isn't exactly the stuff of the Enlightenment, after all.
"It's wholesome," he said. "It's just a form of entertainment."
Sounds like a new motto: "Play the slots, it's... wholesome!"
I also got Adkins on the phone and asked him how the TV show came to be.
"I don't know much about it," he told me. "All I know is that I was asked to sit down and do a TV show." Who asked? "The people in our marketing department."
Of course. I asked him how long he's been friends with Evan Jenne, wondering if it dated back to the first $500 contribution I could find that he'd given his father, back in 1995.
"I've known Evan and I've known his father for a long time," he explained. "How do you live in Broward County and not know Ken Jenne?"
It's true, the sheriff has formed personal friendships with all 1.8 million residents in Broward County. He's amazing like that.
Adkins soon wasn't pleased at the tone of my questioning.
"If you're going to do a negative story, God bless you, but how can these politicians not be interested in what we're doing?" he said. "We're sending a million or a million-two to the state every week. We're sending almost 4 percent of our revenue to cities and the county. I've gone from 120 jobs to 1,200 jobs."
I told him it just sounded as if Jenne and Gibbons were shilling for the industry. "I'm feeling insulted here, I really am," he said. "There is no controversy here. This is a legitimate, highly regulated industry. I'm going to go further. Call the police chief. Since we opened up here, crime has been cut in half."
Gosh, if the sheriff knew what gambling did to crime statistics, he could have avoided that whole Powertrac scandal.
As my interview with Adkins progressed, or digressed, he became increasingly exasperated with the questions.
"Bob, you are insulting me," he said. "This is dead wrong. Who do you think this is, Meyer Lansky sitting here? Why don't you go after Walt Disney and say that Goofy is controversial?"
He had me laughing, but he made an interesting comparison. Mafia legend Meyer Lansky was actually one of the early gambling moguls to operate in Hallandale. But it's really not a fair comparison. Lansky never had a TV show.