August 23, 2013

Hialeah allowing ‘maquinitas’ to remain

Hialeah police say they can’t go after operators of video gaming machines unless it is proven they are generating prizes.

Hialeah is permitting the operation of video gambling machines in stores, even though a state law declared them illegal four months ago, city police said.

“We have changed our stance,” said Carl Zogby, spokesman for the Hialeah Police Department. “For now, we’re not prohibiting the machines in Hialeah businesses so long as they’re not used for the payment of prizes.”

Zogby said the city adopted its approach after several Hialeah businesses defied the state law that made the machines illegal starting in April.

The state law was passed in response to a three-year investigation on illegal betting in the Internet cafes affiliated with Allied Veterans of the World, a purported charitable organization based in St. Augustine.

According to the state investigation, Allied Vets and its affiliates collected $300 million in revenue but donated only $6 million to charity. Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned in March as a result of the investigation because she had worked as a consultant for the organization.

On Friday, Jerry Bass, the group’s national commander, entered a no-contest plea to two counts of operating an illegal lottery.

The machines, commonly known as maquinitas, have been especially popular in blue-collar Hispanic communities in Miami-Dade, including Hialeah.

On Thursday afternoon, Zogby said that an attorney for the police department received legal advice on the subject of the maquinitas.

The advice, Zogby said, was that while ownership of the machines is illegal in theory, police would have to prove the machines were used to pay out prizes.

“In other words, we have to prove the illegal use of these machines,” Zogby said. “That situation places us in the same place where we were before the law was passed.”

The source of the legal advice appears to have been the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. Hialeah City Attorney William Grodnick said Police Chief Sergio Velazquez spoke with the state attorney’s office, and Velazquez said that agency gave advice matching what Zogby described.

Zogby thought the advice came from the state Attorney General’s Office, but a spokeswoman for that agency said this wasn’t the case.

The statement from Hialeah police came after the America TeVe-Channel 41 program In Depth on Wednesday broadcast images of several establishments that contained slot machines.

In April, several businessmen in Hialeah voiced their rejection of the state law. One of them was Jesús Navarro, one of the largest operators of gaming machines in the city and the owner of All American Amusements Inc., founded 16 years ago.

Navarro had become an active contributor to the election campaigns of politicians in Miami and Hialeah, among them Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández.

In June, other prominent industry entrepreneurs who were contributors to political campaigns in Hialeah were arrested by the Organized Crime Unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department. Husband and wife Jesús and Odalys Abreu were arrested after a raid at the OK Minimarket, in Southwest Miami-Dade. The action came after a police investigation revealed that a room in the back was used for illegal gambling.

According to Hialeah municipal records, until May, 2,269 slot machines operated in Hialeah, generating about $1.2 million a year for City Hall.

Zogby added that Hialeah police had recently received several complaints from citizens who reported the clandestine operation of gaming machines in numerous stores. “We’re always ready to respond to the complaints,” Zogby said. “The police can confiscate the coin machines if someone sees that the game is paying out prizes.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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