A criminal investigation into an alleged slots theft ring at Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino has led to the ousting of several employees, including the pari-mutuel's vice president of gaming, according to sources.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is looking into allegations that at least two lower-level employees were involved in ripping off slot machines for cash. But a former host at the casino, Steve Dorman, says Gulfstream doesn't want the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to prosecute any wrongdoing, because it fears the adverse publicity.
"They just want it to go away," Dorman told me Monday. "They wanted to cover it up completely."
For a time it looked as if the casino might get its way. The Sun-Sentinel was the first publication to get wind of the investigation but killed its story at the last minute, apparently after the newspaper's management was influenced by casino advertising executives.
I broke the story last week on the New Times' Website, prompting Dorman to come forward to talk about the emerging scandal.
Gulfstream spokesman Mike Mullaney refused to comment on details of the investigation or the casino's response to it, but he said the pari-mutuel was "playing ball" with the FDLE.
"As a gaming enterprise, integrity and dignity and credibility are of utmost importance to us," he said.
Dorman, who handled customer relations on the casino floor, was fired October 26 for reasons not connected to the criminal investigation. He says the theft ring was limited to a small number of employees, who were allegedly using test cards — meant to make sure the slots were working properly — to steal money from the machines. It isn't known how much money was taken.
Eric Lemerand, Gulfstream's vice president of gaming, was suspended from his job after the investigation began, Dorman says. Mullaney confirmed that Lemerand was no longer working at Gulfstream, but wouldn't discuss details. Efforts to reach Lemerand were unsuccessful. It isn't known whether Lemerand was aware of the theft ring.
Dorman, however, says at least two lower-level employees were caught in the act and were quickly fired. Dorman and other casino sources say rumors are rampant that the thefts were tied to drug use by employees and that a drug dealer was given access to the slot machine test cards.
FDLE spokeswoman Paige Patterson-Hughes confirmed that her agency, which has a regulatory office on Gulfstream grounds in Hallandale Beach, is investigating the casino for criminal wrongdoing, although she declined to provide any details.
Besides the slot machine test cards, there is also speculation the investigation centers on the use of promotional cards given by the casino to patrons. A look at state filings shows Gulfstream gave out a whopping $1,051,000 in nonredeemable credits during July and August. In that same period, Mardi Gras Gaming, a larger casino that does about twice the slots business of Gulfstream, reported using only $108,000 of the credits.
But Dorman says, although he can't speak for all the gratuities given to patrons, most of the promotions were legitimate.
"I'll have to defer to our accounting department about that," Gulfstream's Mullaney said when asked about the state filings. "If there is an investigation, any comment I make could jeopardize it."
Mullaney did offer he had heard people were speculating that huge amounts of money were involved in the theft. "I can't imagine it's millions of dollars," he said. "That boggles the mind."
This is the first potential scandal for Broward County's fledgling slots industry, which is both heavily regulated and heavily taxed by the state. And it's about the last thing Gulfstream, which has been plagued by low revenues and perceived mismanagement for months, needs.
Dorman is no fan, and he swears it's not just because he was fired or that he believes the casino owes him $5000 in bonus money. He says it's obvious even to the casual observer that the entire operation is poorly run. One of those observers, he says, was famed basketball player and cross-dresser Dennis Rodman, who recently hosted a Halloween party at the pari-mutuel.
The former casino host says that during one of Rodman's recent visits, the celebrity beckoned him over to his table and asked, "Why is this place such a joke? There's no fun; there's no atmosphere."
Dorman says he just looked at Rodman and said, "Welcome to Gulfstream."
The casino still seems awash in money, though, with billboards all over town. It's also a large advertiser in the Sun-Sentinel.
Staff writer John Holland was the first reporter to get the story. He confirmed the investigation through the FDLE and also spoke with Dorman and Mullaney about it.
Mullaney said Holland asked him questions and told him the daily newspaper was going to publish an article about the investigation nearly two weeks ago. "But the days came and went without a story," Mullaney told me. "I wasted two dollars and five cents on the Sentinel looking for that story."
Holland declined to comment. Sources at the Sentinel say his article about the investigation was edited, vetted by a lawyer, and then killed at the last minute.
At one point, a high-ranking editor told Holland to speak with a Gulfstream advertising executive who wanted the story spiked, newspaper sources say. Executive Editor Earl Maucker didn't return my phone call asking for comment.
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Although some Sentinel reporters believe the decision to spike the story was directly tied to advertising, others say it was based on concerns about the use of unnamed sources and worries that it could harm the gambling industry.
Whatever the reason, the decision doesn't bode well for journalism in Broward County. The newspaper's circulation has been in steady decline. At the same time, it is undergoing what management called "transformative change," which entails a blending of the newsroom with the Sentinel's marketing and advertising departments. For good reason, news reporting has traditionally been kept strictly separate from the interests of advertisers.
The (mis)handling fate of the Gulfstream story might be a sign that not only is the newspaper bridging departments, but also its hunt for revenues in an increasingly grim industry has overtaken its already tepid journalistic mission — which would be far worse than whatever happened on the slots floor of a local casino.