For some employees, Gulfstream Park was a hell of a place to work, full of cocaine and free gambling. When the scheme was finally discovered in 2007, hundreds of thousands of dollars had been stolen from the casino and taxpayers, and now the "family-friendly" racetrack is left with a potential public relations nightmare.
A state investigation is just about finished, and it paints an ugly portrait of Gulfstream. According to investigators, the park's employees and their friend, a cocaine-slinging ex-con once convicted of murder, ripped off nearly $289,324 in slot winnings. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement determined the Hallandale Beach casino now owes $144,662 in taxes on that ill-begotten money.
The ring of employees, which included highly placed supervisors, clearly acted in rogue fashion. The investigation also revealed that Gulfstream's sloppy management might have allowed the crime to occur. One example: Auditing of the casino's computer system was turned off, presumably by ring members, and nobody noticed.
Gulfstream executives were shielded from investigators by the park's politically connected attorney, Marc Dunbar, and the casino was slow in producing crucial documents.
The entire mess begins with a group of casino employees who had a penchant for partying. Among them, investigators say: then-vice president of gaming Eric Lemerand, casino compliance officer Marilyn Ankers, lead slot technician Danny Feliciano, and slot attendants Reinaldo Paonessa, Lorraine Lancaster, Mindy Harper, and Alexandru Bunescu.
The state report alleges all admitted using cocaine either on the casino property or at an off-site party. The source of the cocaine, according to state investigative records, was Sarfraz Janjua, a 34-year-old Miami Beach resident whom the casino workers called "Chico."
In 1995, Janjua was convicted of robbery and murder after a holdup gone bad at a hardware store. One of his cohorts, Danny Milian, was killed by the store owner's grandson. Janjua was convicted for his death and served five years in prison.
Janjua also came into possession of some of the casino's e-promo test cards, which were supposed to be loaded with very small amounts of money, about five dollars each, and used only by staff to test the slots.
Janjua was also given promotional cards with thousands of dollars in free credits on them. The promotions usually involve cards with $100 or less. Gulfstream forbids giving away more than $500 in credits without the casino president's approval.
The investigation eventually determined Janjua and possible accomplices snared at least $36,000 in free gambling money during a two-month period. It also found the schemers cashed in $289,324 in winning tickets.
Like so many of the sketchy investigative findings, it doesn't all add up.
"I've looked at the documents, and I still can't figure it out," says Mardi Gras Gaming President Dan Adkins, who received a copy of the investigation. "There has to be more to the story."
The test and promotional cards, like everything related to the pari-mutuels, are regulated and tracked by the state. To understand how badly Gulfstream abused the cards, consider that during July and August 2007, the casino gave away more than $1 million in credits. By comparison, Mardi Gras Gaming, a much larger pari-mutuel, issued just $108,000 during that period.
The scheme was discovered after a stupid mistake. On September 28, 2007, Janjua allegedly walked up to the Players Club window at Gulfstream with a test card meant only for staff and asked that more credits be placed on it. The clerk instead notified Mike Chapple, Gulfstream's security director. Chapple went to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which had an office on Gulfstream grounds at the time.
Janjua quickly pinpointed lead slot technician Feliciano as his supplier. The investigation determined Feliciano never should have been hired, let alone placed in such a sensitive position. He had withheld the fact that he'd been fired from Horizon Edge Casino Cruises in Miami after a positive cocaine test. Feliciano was suspended, ultimately fired, and charged with and convicted of organized fraud and cheating. He was sentenced to two and half years of probation. A state database shows he's living in Orlando, but like Janjua, he couldn't be reached for comment.
One of the slot attendants, Paonessa, was determined to have falsified his license application when he hid a petty theft conviction. So much for state background checks.
Janjua was convicted of petty theft for his role in the Gulfstream scheme and sentenced to probation. Most of the other employees named in the report were fired (though one apparently remains employed). Lemerand, the highest-ranking employee involved, was quickly suspended and later was allowed to resign in lieu of being fired. He was also barred from the property for a year.
Back in 2007, New Times spoke with Lemerand, who had moved to Michigan, and he denied involvement in the theft ring. The investigation, however, found he was an associate of Janjua's and had used cocaine supplied at an off-site party. Investigators wrote that Lemerand was "suspected of circumventing internal controls" on the gambling cards. Lemerand didn't respond to voice messages last week.
In the end, not a lot of punishment or blame has been meted out for theft of at least $300,000 that should have been earmarked for education. Perhaps worse, the reports make it seem Gulfstream management was inept at regulating itself and then hindered the investigation.
The state hired a Las Vegas firm, BMM Compliance, which quickly determined Gulfstream's internal auditing functions had been turned off in July 2007, about the time the theft of the cards began. This shutting down made it impossible for investigators to determine which employees authorized the use of the cards to Janjua.
BMM said the casino should have prepared daily audit reports, but their absence went unnoticed and the fraud flourished. Investigators also determined there wasn't a clear separation of duties. The fact that thousands of dollars in credits were loaded onto test cards should have been discovered quickly. "All test transactions should be documented," an investigator wrote. "All tickets should be properly documented... This clearly was not done."
When BMM began requesting records from Gulfstream, it often didn't receive them. The firm ultimately complained to state regulators that the casino was so slow in providing documents, thus hindering the investigation.
Investigators weren't given access to Gulfstream officials either. Just three weeks into the investigation, Gulfstream attorney Marc Dunbar put the kibosh on communication between the state and track officials.
"Gulfstream continues to feel that they are on the same page with [state investigators] regarding the inquiry," Dunbar wrote in an October 22 letter to the state. "However, out of concern for the sensitive nature of the investigation and the need to ensure that confidentiality is maintained until its conclusion, it seems to make sense to create a communication funnel through counsel at this point."
Ah, nothing a criminal investigator enjoys more than a "communication funnel" through a lawyer while looking into a casino heist.
Dunbar refused to comment for this article, as did Gulfstream spokesman Mike Mullaney, who said he was under strict orders not to discuss the investigation. Dunbar's law firm did send New Times a written statement.
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"Gulfstream Park was targeted by a ring of unscrupulous employees who engaged in activities," Dunbar wrote. "Gulfstream was the first to uncover the activity via its internal security processes and immediately reported the matter to state regulators... Gulfstream continues to cooperate fully with state officials and awaits the outcome of the investigation into the activities of these individuals."
Dunbar, according to sources, has a long and close relationship with Dave Roberts, who was chief of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering throughout the investigation. Roberts abruptly resigned his position with the state two weeks ago. The investigation is still open.
More to the story? We'll see.