In September 2005, Miami leaders took sledgehammers to slots-like video gaming machines, touting the seizure of nearly 900 so-called maquinitas as part of a broad campaign to improve the quality of life.
But in Hialeah, Mayor Julio Robaina took a different tack: He issued a proclamation to honor one of the city’s leading gaming-machine owners, declaring April 25, 2006, “Jesus Navarro Day.”
Robaina — now a leading candidate for Miami-Dade County mayor — has long embraced the controversial maquinitas as simple amusement games that can be regulated through licensing. But many law-enforcement officials and gaming experts describe them as thinly disguised illegal gambling devices that go hand in hand with prostitution and drug dealing.
Under Robaina’s leadership, maquinitas in Hialeah have emerged from the shadows to the mainstream of daily life, a pervasive presence that residents encounter whether stopping for breakfast at a diner, picking up milk at a supermarket, getting a car fixed or doing laundry.
With large unincorporated areas of Miami-Dade under direct county control, Robaina’s posture on the machines could dramatically reshape the industry’s presence if he becomes mayor. (…)
The maquinita industry is betting on Robaina’s election bid. Even with the contribution limits of $500 per person or company, machine interests have anted up nearly $15,000 in Robaina’s first two-and-a-half months of fundraising. All told, Robaina raised more than $600,000 in the first quarter. Joining the machine owners in contributing to Robaina are their families and various corporations they own. In addition, some 30 establishments that house the machines — ranging from Bauta Cleaners and Blachita Snack Shop to Porky’s Cabaret in Hialeah — have ponied up contributions to Robaina.
Anticipating criticism from opponents, Robaina has returned four checks totaling $1,500 that came directly from maquinita companies, such as Rotella Amusement and GP Amusements. On April 1 he also returned the $500 contribution from Porky’s Cabaret, which he received on March 9. But he has kept much more from various companies and people tied to the machines, according to campaign fundraising reports.
Navarro, the owner of All American Amusements whom Robaina honored in 2006; his son Christian Navarro, an owner of Wildfire Amusements, and establishments housing their machines have pitched in more than $8,000, campaign reports show. Many of the contributions were given over a three-day stretch from March 7 to 9.
Navarro, in one instance, also sought and got a contribution from a Miami restaurant that previously housed four maquinitas that were seized in a city of Miami crackdown and which wants to have machines again.
Jumbo’s, the well known eatery in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, wrote Robaina a check for $200 in March. Restaurant owner Bobby Flam, who said he would like to have maquinitas allowed again in his restaurant to bring in added revenue, said he contributed at the behest of Jesus Navarro.
Navarro declined to comment to The Miami Herald. “Please. Don’t waste my time,” he said, hanging up.
The machine industry backed Robaina in 2009 in his bid for re-election as Hialeah mayor. That financial backing followed Robaina’s pivotal support of a 2008 ordinance favorable to the industry.
The debate over the machines turns on the question of whether they are games of chance or skill. With the exception of sites such as specified pari-mutuels, state law broadly forbids gambling, outlawing machines with “any element of chance.” State law says it is “the duty” of law enforcement to “seize and take possession” of gambling machines.
But maquinita owners have sought to exploit an exception in the law that allows amusement games of skill — like video games at arcades — that provide small prizes. The industry has, in some cases, successfully proven in court that skill is required. (…)
But in 2008 Hialeah approved an ordinance that set a $500 yearly licensing fee for each machine, under the assumption the maquinitas were for amusement, not gambling.
Under the ordinance, Hialeah has boosted city revenue by ensuring that machines are licensed. But that has made criminal prosecution harder, giving a patina of legitimacy to the machines, which have every appearance of slot machines, from buttons that read “Bet” and “Cashout” to rolling fruit icons that line up to produce a “Jackpot.”
The 2008 change under Robaina also increased the number of machines permitted at a site and broadened the types of establishments that could house the machines, said Hialeah City Attorney William Grodnick.
Some 2,300 machines are operating in Hialeah today. (…)
A Robaina contributor and maquinita owner operating in Hialeah…Orlando Cordoves, part owner of GP Amusement…was charged in a 2004 federal gambling racketeering case that targeted the so-called “Cuban Mafia’’ led by Jose M. Battle. But his name has been expunged from the federal court records and, according to his attorney, Rick Diaz, charges were dismissed. Cordoves, relatives and his companies have contributed $2,950 to Robaina’s campaign — and $500 was returned by the Robaina campaign. Cordoves previously contributed to Robaina’s 2009 campaign.
Cordoves has been an active proponent of maquinitas. (…)