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State Target Pari-Mutuels Over Card Games

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Florida gambling regulators filed complaints this week against seven pari-mutuels over a lucrative type of card games, accusing the facilities of illegally operating the games more than three years after state officials first approved them.

The complaints involve what are known as "designated-player card games," also called "player-banked card games," which include a hybrid of three-card poker and resemble casino-style card games but are played among gamblers instead of against the house. Pari-mutuel operators - who are banned by law from offering "banked" card games, such as blackjack, in which players bet against the house instead of against each other - contend the games are legal.

The administrative complaints, issued Monday by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, accuse the pari-mutuels of "operating a banking game or a game not specifically authorized" by state law, and allowing certain individuals playing the games to "work" in their facilities without occupational licenses, required for pari-mutuel card dealers.

The pari-mutuels have 21 days to appeal the complaints.

Lawyers and lobbyists affiliated with the pari-mutuels said Wednesday they believe regulators targeted players who worked for companies that have deals with the pari-mutuels regarding the games, but the complaints did not spell that out.

Late last year, regulators decided the games were illegal, years after allowing them. According to operators, the games are highly popular with players and have eclipsed other card games, such as Texas Hold 'Em.

Several pari-mutuel operators challenged the new rule that outlawed the games. The challenges are still pending.

The Seminole Tribe has also filed a lawsuit against the state over the designated-player card games, saying that the player-banked games violate an agreement giving the tribe exclusive rights to offer banked card games. That agreement expired last summer, but the tribe is still operating its card games.

The designated player games are also linked to a new agreement, called a "compact," signed by Gov. Rick Scott and tribal leader James Billie last month. The compact, which requires legislative ratification, would only allow the designated player games to be played outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties --- where pari-mutuels have slot machines --- and would limit bets to $25.

During a Senate Regulated Industries hearing focused on gambling issues Wednesday morning, Sen. Jack Latvala questioned the administrative actions against the pari-mutuels. The Clearwater Republican had raised concerns about regulators' turn-around on the games during a committee meeting last week.

"I'm curious, how we could arrive at a situation where they're illegal less than a week after I asked questions about that," Latvala asked Howard Korman of Jacksonville Greyhound Racing. T

he Jacksonville facility was one of the pari-mutuels that received a complaint.

"I wish I could answer that," Korman said. "We basically felt that we had complete permission. I truly don't understand why at this point in time that the argument made by our regulators is now different."

"It's unfortunate to have the carpet pulled out from under you but I think that's an extension of what's going on with this compact. I've got to believe it's related to this compact. I've got to believe it's related to the questions I asked last week," Latvala responded.

The other targeted pari-mutuels were the Palm Beach Kennel Club, Derby Lane, Gulfstream Park, Isle Casino Racing in Pompano Park, Magic City Casino and Tampa Bay Downs

Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Ken Lawson, who attended Wednesday's meeting, referred questions about his agency's actions to his press office.

The complaints are likely to spur even more challenges over the state's gambling laws.

"They specifically authorized us to operate these specific games numerous times," said John Lockwood, a lawyer representing the Palm Beach Kennel Club - the first pari-mutuel to get authorization from the state to run the games, in 2012 - as well as Magic City Casino and the Jacksonville pari-mutuel.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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