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Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson: Fontainebleau Resort Will Not Get Casino License This Year

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - After spending more than a million dollars in campaign contributions and hosting elaborate, star-studded fundraisers for Republicans on his mega yacht, Fontainebleau Resort owner Jeffrey Soffer will not be allowed to move his casino license to Miami Beach – at least for now.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson closed the door on Soffer's dream of a casino at his storied hotel during an interview with CBS Miami.

"We will not contemplate moving a casino license out to the Fontainebleau," Simpson said.

It was the clearest statement yet by Simpson, the most powerful Republican in the state Senate. The Legislature is scheduled to meet in a special session starting May 17 to approve a new gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and critics feared there would be an effort to sneak through an amendment allowing Soffer to open his Miami Beach casino.

The Senate President also ruled out transferring a license to Donald Trump's country club in Doral.

"I do not think that that's being contemplated in this special session," Simpson said. "I actually I know it's not. We put out the call yesterday and it would prohibit that type of activity."

(A senior Republican aide went even further, telling CBS Miami that under the rules of the special session established by Simpson, any Senator who proposes transferring or moving a casino license would be ruled out of order.)

Simpson's comments are a major blow to Soffer, who spent months waging an intense, secretive lobbying campaign to bring casino gambling to his hotel. He hosted private parties and fundraisers for Republican lawmakers aboard his $272 million super yacht, Madsummer, while also introducing them to his celebrity friends like Tom Brady.

Soffer currently has a license for the Big Easy Casino in Hallandale Beach but wants to transfer it to Miami Beach. State law currently prevents "portability," the right to move your casino license from one location to another. Miami Beach officials strongly oppose the move. Doral has also expressed deep reservations.

Soffer's yacht-based lobbying efforts began last Fall but were eventually uncovered by The Miami Herald in March.

In his interview with CBS Miami, Simpson downplayed his casino discussions with Soffer, saying they are no different than his discussions with other business owners.

"So it's not breaking news that Jeff Soffer would like to move his license to the Fontainebleau," Simpson said. "Everybody knows that. And so that is something that we consider as a legislature. It's something just like any other considerations we do."

"Jeff Soffer has been somebody that when I have spoken with him, and I've spoken to him several times about this issue, has been very gracious," he added.

Gracious and generous. Interests controlled by Soffer, donated more than $1 million to Republicans in 2020, including nearly $400,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, and $350,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Simpson used to help elect Senate candidates across the state.

Nevertheless, Simpson said Soffer was recently informed his casino plans are dead – at least for this year.

"Jeff Soffer has folks that we, you know, that engage us on the issue," he said, referring to Soffer's lobbyists. "We've been very clear that I do not believe that it's going to happen this year. That's correct."

Asked if he can understand why the public – discovering how one wealthy man attempted to buy the support of legislators aboard a mega yacht - would find the entire process seamy and unethical, Simpson said: "Judge us by the final product."

"There is no shortage of money in the political process," he said, noting it's true for both parties. "And so I think there's always going to be money in politics. I think they're always going to be business people that are going to come to the Legislature with the needs that they have. I think that what you should judge us on is based on what the finished product is."

And this year, he noted, the final product is that Soffer will not get his Miami Beach casino.

Neither Soffer nor officials at the Fontainebleau responded to a request for comment.

Going forward, Simpson said he is not automatically opposed to portability, but added if local officials oppose a casino, he will not support moving a casino license to that city.

"I'm not totally against portability," he said. "I'm against portability that would run over local communities to make it happen."

Miami Beach, for instance, has repeatedly passed ordinances and resolutions opposing casino gambling.

"We know two things about casino gambling," said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. "Number one, it's horrible for a community. There's no city in America that has casinos that we want to be. And number two, it makes an enormous amount of money for very few people who tend to green the legislature with lots of money to get lots of attention."

Gelber said he is relieved to hear Soffer's plan is dead this year.

"I'm glad the Senate President is saying what he's saying," Gelber said. "But, of course, he's only the Senate President for two years and he's only committing to this year. So this fight isn't over. And unfortunately, so long as there are people with an enormous amount of money, millions to give to legislatures or governors, we're constantly going to be fighting it."

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