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Miami police make arrests and seize ‘maquinitas’ as mayor does about-face

A week after Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill outlawing video gambling machines — “maquinitas,” as they’re known locally — Miami police swept through the city’s small bars and marketplaces Thursday, confiscating 10 machines and making six arrests.

While that show of force was under way, a career politician who once championed a law to make the machines legal took center stage at a highly publicized event in which 48 of the machines were crushed by bulldozers, and speakers told of the evils maquinitas brought to Miamians.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, whose first major action as mayor was the creation of an ordinance that would reform the pesky maquinita movement his former police chief tried so hard to destroy, suddenly transformed himself into New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia circa 1942, who in a historic photograph wielded a sledge hammer to destroy a slot machine.

“I was not in favor of the maquinitas, I was in favor of regulating the maquinitas,” Regalado said Thursday, stepping away from the bulldozers that were crushing the glass and wood remnants of 48 video gambling machines at the city’s sanitation yard in Allapattah. “Now they’re illegal, and we applaud that.”

Piped in Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo, the only one of five commissioners who voted against the mayor’s ordinance: “Some call it a game, but really, they’re a cancer. It goes to quality of life.”

Some of the people in stores with maquinita got caught unawares Thursday as city cops and hordes of media descended. That was the case for shopkeeper Ayman Jadallah, 47, who said he was the manager of a tiny Overtown grocery store at 712 NW Fifth Ave. Jadallah was charged with operating a business that had a slot machine. He avoided being arrested by signing a promissory note to appear in court.

Tucked away in the front corner next to the door was the small black machine with a glass front and no lettering. Inside the machine were $10 and $20 bills that had no chance of reaching a player’s hand. Also inside were dozens of quarters on a silver tray. To win, users drop quarters through a hole onto the tray. As the quarters stack up they push the quarters the furthest out closer to the end of the tray, where they eventually fall off and drop through a hole to the waiting customer.

Despite his best efforts, Jadallah could not get the media throng to leave his store. The machine, which Jadallah said he had no idea was illegal, was later taken away. The shopkeeper eventually admitted he had more of the illegal machines in the store about a decade ago, but got rid of them.

“I decided it wasn’t worth the problems,” he said.

Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa believes there are upwards of 1,000 maquinitas in the city. Aside from the 48 destroyed Thursday, the city has another 100 warehoused because cases are still tied up in court. Officers have spent months undercover searching for machines, and Orosa said they’ll continue sweeps until all the machines are collected.

The city on Thursday was trying to show it’s at the forefront of the anti-gambling-machine movement that recently swept through Tallahassee. The machines have been a thorn in the side of Miami politicians for the past three years. Regalado’s involvement goes back to the 2010 ordinance he endorsed that mandated machine owners get permit stickers by paying a $500 yearly fee per machine. The mayor argued at the time that his ordinance would pay off by stuffing plummeting city coffers and creating a database of the machines.

The mayor also collected about $15,000 in campaign contributions from industry insiders during his 2009 mayoral victory run.

But his former handpicked police chief, Miguel Exposito, never believed the machines were legal and continued to confiscate them and make arrests. The two men were at such odds that Exposito was finally forced out in the fall of 2011.

Since the ordinance went into effect in October 2010, not a single person in Miami bought a permit. Finally, three weeks ago — more than two years after the ordinance was created — Regalado conceded that because no permits had been purchased every machine in town was illegal. It was time, he and Police Chief Manuel Orosa said, to round them up and destroy them.

The change in attitude came just a few weeks after the state’s lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, resigned from office while being investigated for consulting for a charity involved in illegal gambling machines. The investigation unearthed millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the video gaming industry to Tallahassee politicians, and proved a huge embarrassment in the state capitol. So far, 57 people have been arrested.

Lawmakers quickly reacted, creating a law making the machines illegal. Complicating events, owners of arcades for seniors in Tamarac and Davie filed a legal challenge to the new law this week, calling it “arbitrary, capricious and not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.” The arcade owners say that because the new law does not define a crime, it should be overturned.

But the challenge wasn’t on the mind of Miami leaders Thursday, as cops swept the city and bulldozers crushed maquinitas. Regalado told onlookers that “this is a visual message that the city is serious indeed in following state law.”

His actions caught the attention of political foe Francis Suarez, a city commissioner who is running for mayor against Regalado in November. Seizing on the mayor’s moves as a perceived about-face, Suarez called the press gathering “a new brand of political opportunism.”

He concluded a blistering, seven paragraph statement by calling Regalado’s public event “a stunning display of hypocrisy and political opportunism.”

“Mayor Regalado is turning his back on the industry he has long defended and attempting to re-brand himself as an anti-maquinita crusader. Sorry, Mr. Mayor, you cannot break your ties to the gaming machine industry by smashing a maquinita for the cameras,” wrote Suarez.

Regalado was quick to note that Suarez voted in favor of the ordinance.

“So I don’t know why he’s saying that now,” said the mayor. “I did not champion maquinitas. I championed the ordinance.”