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Racino executive speaks out on card-room controversy

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The head of a Jacksonville racetrack and card room says the state was unfairly targeting pari-mutuels for running illegal card games, especially when state regulators oversaw the games being set up.

Howard Korman, president of Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, which does business as BestBet, spoke at a Senate Regulated Industries Committee meeting on Wednesday.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation on Tuesday filed administrative complaints against Korman’s operation and six other tracks in Florida.

The state is fighting what’s known as “designated-player games” offered in the pari-mutuels’ card rooms.

The enforcement action came at the same time that lawmakers are considering whether to approve a new “compact” with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, whose casinos compete with tracks in South Florida and elsewhere that also offer cards and slots

Such games are usually a version of poker in which players take on each other, rather than playing against the house.

The pari-mutuels have said such games are allowed because they’re not like blackjack, which is played against the house and is limited to the Tribe’s Florida casinos.

The tribe, though, has said that designated-player card games, which the state previously allowed, violate the tribe’s exclusive rights to offer blackjack to its casino customers.

Korman told lawmakers that regulators were in his facility as they were setting up their designated-player games.

“We understand we’re in a regulated industry, but not one where the rug is pulled out from under us,” Korman said. “We basically felt we had complete permission … I truly don’t understand why what we were told is now different.”

State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, had an answer: “I gotta believe that it is related to the compact and the questions (about designated-player card games) I asked in this committee last week.”

The department did not comment beyond providing copies of the complaints.

Other pari-mutuels in the department’s cross-hairs include Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach, Magic City Casino in Miami, Isle Casino and Pompano Park in Pompano Beach, Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, and Tampa Bay Downs in Tampa.

The last two directly compete for gamblers with the tribe’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

The state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering has said any form of gambling is illegal unless it’s specifically authorized, and the card games in question aren’t directly allowed under state gambling law.

The administrative complaints seek penalties of unspecified fines and possible suspensions or revocations of the pari-mutuels’ operating permits.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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