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Storefront gaming ban headed to Senate floor

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Delray Beach sisters Anita Silverman and Tobie Berg

A proposed ban on Internet cafes that would also shutter adult arcades is headed to the Senate floor for a vote as early as Tuesday over the objections of dozens of seniors who traveled from Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties to plead with lawmakers to leave them alone.

The proposed ban, already passed by the Florida House, is a swift reaction to a a multi-state sting last month that resulted in 57 arrests and prompted Jennifer Carroll to resign as lieutenant governor. Authorities accused Allied Veterans of the World, a charitable organization Carroll consulted for while a state representative, of racketeering and money laundering charges associated with operating a $300 million illegal gambling ring.
The proposal would ban slot machine-like games at storefront gaming centers, including those that cater to seniors who testified Tuesday morning that they spend hours playing the games for as little as $20.

And, the seniors and arcade operators said, the amusement centers give them a place to and people to hang out with instead of spending their days – and nights – alone.

Many of the seniors were from Port St. Lucie. They complained that the arcades are the only entertainment for them in their community.

“We have lunch. We have dinner. We celebrate our birthday there. So if they close, a lot of us are going to be very lonely,” one Port St. Lucie resident said.

Mike Cannon, who owns Mardi Gras arcade in Port St. Lucie, told the committee that the arcades, which operate under a 30-year-old statute, shouldn’t be punished because of the Allied Veterans wrongdoing.

“You had a big scandal on your hands and we had nothing to do with it,” Cannon said. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We paid our taxes. We do everything by the law and we’ve never had a problem.”

Sen. John Thrasher, the bill sponsor, explained that the measure (SB 1030) would not impact children’s arcades such as Dave and Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese.

That drew the wrath of Gale Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association, who owns several adult arcades in Broward County.

“This is nowhere for them to go. They eat lunch together. They eat dinner together. It has nothing to do about the games. It’s their clubhouse,” Fontaine said, referring to dozens of elderly audience members, some with canes or in wheelchairs, and many of whom were clad in white T-shirts imprinted with “Don’t kill amusement centers” in red.
“I think it’s a disgrace that we will take care of the children’s community and not take care of the senior community.”

Delray Beach resident Anita Silverman, 82, traveled on a bus organized by the association along with about 80 others to attend the committee meeting early Tuesday morning.

She said she is a widow who enjoys the camaraderie of the Atlantic Arcade less than a mile from her house.

“Come Saturday night, I’m all by myself. Saturday night is very lonely,” she said.

The ban will shut down about half of the 300 American Legion halls now open throughout the state, Bob Kiley, American Legion District 6 commander, said. Many of the halls run adult arcades, but all of the proceeds go to charity, Kiley said.

The Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved the proposal even as several members expressed concern that it cast too broad a net.

“I would like to see…a carve out just like we gave Chuck E. Cheese bingo,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

The arcades pay 4 percent of their gross proceeds to the state and 6 percent sales tax, Sobel pointed out.
“They’re a legitimate business and there’s unintended consequences by putting them into a different category. I don’t think we intended to do that. If there needs to be more regulation…so be it. This is the difference between apples & oranges.”

Acknowledging that the proposal may cast “too wide a net,” Sen. Jeremy Ring chided the arcade operators for fiercely opposing previous efforts to impose stricter regulations on them.

“We don’t need to be here today. This could have been worked out years ago.
But it is here today because there has only been vehement opposition and never any proactive response to try to work together to create the proper regulations that I’m convinced do not exist,” Ring, D-Margate, said.

But Thrasher insisted the bill is designed to close a “gray area” in law exposed by the Allied Veterans sting.

“I don’t believe we’re putting anybody out of business. If… because of existing loopholes…they have moved into areas they shouldn’t have moved into…they may have to adjust some of the games that are out there,” Thrasher said. “But what this bill does is tighten up the gambling laws. I’m not going to back off.”

Anti-abortion measure passes Senate committee, moving in House tomorrow

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Republican legislators are pushing an omnibus anti-abortion measure that revives some of the most controversial portions of proposals left out of a package of anti-abortion bills passed last year and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The Senate Health Regulation Committee approved the proposal (SB 290) by a 5-2 vote, with a single Republican, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, joining the lone Democrat on the committee, Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, in opposition.

The proposal would impose a 24-hour wait period before women can receive abortions, require that clinics be wholly owned and operated by doctors whose residency was in abortion procedures, bar clinics from advertising that they perform abortions, and make it even more difficult for women to get already-banned and extremely rare third-trimester abortions.

Abortion providers say the changes are aimed at making it harder for women to get abortions.

“That is the real reason for this legislation – to make it even more difficult or impossible for women in Florida to access a full range of reproductive service,” Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood of North Florida, which operates five clinics, told the committee.

Jones asked the bill’s sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores whether her proposal would impose burdensome regulations on Florida businesses, something GOP leaders say they want to reduce.

“You’re right. This bill is increasing regulation of abortions,” Flores, R-Miami, said, “because what we’re talking about is a major medical procedure…I do think the state has a very strong purpose in increasing this regulation.”

The bill would also require abortion doctors to take three hours of ethics courses each year, drawing the objection of ACLU of Florida lobbyist Pamela Burch Fort.

The bill is about “shaming women who obtain abortions and shaming physicians who perform those procedures,” Fort said.

An identical bill (HB 277) is up in a House committee Thursday morning. Proponents expect both chambers to sign off on the measures, and Gov. Rick Scott will likely sign them into law if they do.

Sobel offered a series of amendments which she withdrew before they could be rejected, including one which would require a 24-hour wait period before a man could get a vasectomy or a prescription for Viagra.

Atwater IG clears Bondi of meddling in foreclosure lawyers’ forced resignations

Friday, January 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

An inspector general late Friday cleared Attorney General Pam Bondi of wrongdoing in the forced resignations of former foreclosure lawyers Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson.

There was “no discovery of evidence of wrongdoing on the part of anyone involved in the matter,” an 85-page report written by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater‘s inspector general, asked by Bondi to look into accusations that her office mishandled the terminations, concluded.

“The report confirms the terminations had nothing to do with politics or outside influence. Rather, it was about doing the right thing, in defense of the people of Florida,” Bondi said in a press release.

The report drew criticism from two Democratic lawmakers who have asked for an independent investigation into the matter.

“From the outset, the investigation requested by Attorney General Pam Bondi raised troubling questions. There was little to no independence as she turned to a colleague, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to look into her own conduct and that of her office. Much like a close relative investigating as opposed to a distant cousin, the pronouncement by Mr. Atwater’s office of ‘guilt-free” is hardly reassuring – to me, or the thousands of Florida homeowners looking for protection from foreclosure fraud abuse,” Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said in a statement.

“Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson netted $2 million in foreclosure fraud damages for Floridians and were quickly fired thereafter. The termination of these attorneys is a violation of state policy by obstructing the prosecution of mortgage and foreclosure fraud. The inspector general’s report focuses, instead, on minutiae in order to avoid making a call on the big picture,” Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said in press release.

State lawmakers expand inquiry into Bondi foreclosure fraud firings

Thursday, August 4th, 2011 by Dara Kam

From The Palm Beach Post‘s Kimberly Miller:

Two Democratic state lawmakers seeking federal assistance to investigate the ouster of state foreclosure fraud investigators have expanded their public records request of Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, say the request is in response to information they received about high-level attorney general lawyer Joe Jacquot going to work for Lender Processing Services, or LPS, as well as a former general counsel for Gov. Rick Scott’s former health care company, Solantic.

The Jacksonville-based company is under investigation by the attorney general’s office for its foreclosure-related practices. Shortly after Jacquot left Bondi’s office and went to work for LPS, Bondi fired two foreclosure fraud investigators.

“A number of troubling questions have come to our attention involving past and current employees of the Attorney General’s office and at least one mortgage processing company currently under investigation,” the two lawmakers wrote in a press release today. “In particular, we are especially concerned with the sudden departure to Lender Processing Services of your former special counsel, Joe Jacquot, and the subsequent dismissal of two apparently top notch foreclosure fraud attorneys _ June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards.”

Lender Processing Services is a former subsidiary of Fidelity National Financial. Both companies gave big donations _ to both Republicans and Democrats _ during the 2010 general election.

The Republican Party of Florida received about $19,000 from Fidelity, while the Democratic Party picked up $6,000. Fidelity also gave $2,000 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, and $1,500 to winner Rick Scott.

LPS gave $36,500 to the Republican party and an additional $12,500 to the Democratic party.

Read Kimberly Miller’s blog here.

Dem state Senator says Crist appears likely to veto abortion ultrasound bill

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010 by George Bennett

HOLLYWOOD — Gov. Charlie Crist appears likely to veto a bill requiring women to see ultrasounds before they can get abortions, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said today.

Sobel said she had a brief conversation with Crist as he visited the Seminole reservation for a ceremonial signing of a $1 billion gaming compact.

“I think it looks positive for a veto, but it’s not over ’til he vetoes it,” Sobel said. “I actually went up and whispered in his ear….It means a lot to the women in this state.”

The ultrasound bill didn’t come up when Crist spoke briefly with reporters before leaving the event.

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