In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: In the long run, ‘maquinitas’ didn’t beat the odds

Miami’s maquinitas are suddenly illegal. It’s official. The mayor said so.

This would not be news to former Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito, who lost his job two years ago after a dust-up with Mayor Tomás Regalado over maquinitas. Exposito not only considered the video terminals illegal, but back in 2010 his investigators seized a passel of them.

The mayor had not been pleased. Regalado had just pushed through a city ordinance that conferred a kind of legitimacy on the maquinitas, as long as the stores and cafes running the so-called “simulated gambling” machines paid the city a $500 licensing fee for each device.

The mayor saw them as a revenue source to replenish the city’s depleted treasury. The police chief, however, saw them as no more than low-rent slot machines. His cops scarfed up 400 machines. It was as if the city was in the throes of maquinitas schizophrenia.

So, too, was the rest of Florida. More than 1,000 strip mall casinos popped up around the state, known variously as Internet cafes or adult arcades or maquinitas, even as cops and prosecutors and the state’s attorney general were railing that these were illegal gambling joints, exploiting loopholes in state law.

Operators claimed they were only running innocent amusement machines. But cops noticed the “simulated gambling devices” were paying off. Some cities and counties tried to outlaw the arcades. Others, hoping to avoid lawsuits, decided to let them operate.

But Miami seemed to be the only city that tried simultaneously to license these joints even as city cops were busting the operators and seizing their machines. The contradiction ended abruptly last week.

Herald reporters Charles Rabin and Melissa Sanchez noticed that in the 2 ½ years since Miami adopted the $500 licensing-fee ordinance, not a single maquinitas operator had bothered to buy a license. Not one. Which meant, the mayor admitted, that not a single one of the machines in the city was legal.

The revelation comes too late to matter. Just as the mayor realized that video gambling terminals are illegal, so, too, has the Florida Legislature.

The great epiphany came two weeks ago, after a joint operation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the IRS and local law enforcement busted 57 people associated with a chain of Internet cafes, operating as a bogus veterans charity. Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, whose marketing firm had done some ethically questionable work for the so-called Allied Veterans of the World, resigned.

Meanwhile, members of the Legislature tried to explain away $1.4 million in political contributions from what the FDLE described as a criminal enterprise.

Last week, their collective embarrassment propelled a bill banning gambling arcades, Internet cafes and maquinitas through the House by a 110-6 vote. A companion bill is expected to zoom through the Senate this week.

It appears that state law will banish Miami’s maquinitas along with any notions that the city might collect licensing fees. Chief Exposito, as it turned out, was fired for nothing.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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