Gambling regulators were wrong to try to take back a South Florida jai alai license they claimed was issued by mistake, an administrative law judge ruled this week.
The issue surrounds what is known as a summer jai alai permit originally granted more than three decades ago in Miami. The permit, which was converted from a greyhound permit, is owned by the Havenick family, which also operates dog tracks in Miami and Naples.
For years, the permit owners have leased space for matches at Miami Jai Alai. But this year the Summer Jai-Alai Partnership, known as “Summer Partners,” decided to move its operations to The Casino at Dania Beach, which the Havenicks manage, in Broward County.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation signed off on the requested license in March, but three months later told Summer Partners the agency had issued the license in error and intended to revoke it. Regulators maintained they had mistakenly given approval for the operators to move the jai alai games from Miami-Dade County to Broward County.
Transferring from one county to another isn’t allowed, the regulators argued.
But siding with Summer Partners attorney John Lockwood, Administrative Law Judge Robert Meale ruled Tuesday that nothing in law bans licenses from being relocated across county lines, so long as the operations stay within 35 miles of the original location of the permit.
And Meale appeared skeptical that gambling regulators were unaware of what they were doing at the time they granted the 2017-2018 license, noting that an employee involved with reviewing the application attached “a large post-it note” to the file advising of the move from Miami-Dade to Broward.
“The note is still attached to the file, which was presented at the final hearing. The note is impossible to miss,” Meale wrote in the order recommending that the department withdraw a notice of intent to revoke the license.
Tuesday’s decision was the latest in a series of setbacks for gambling regulators.
Last year, Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early ruled that the state’s gambling overseers were wrong to do away with a rule governing controversial “designated player” card games without replacing the regulations.
Also last year, a federal judge struck a blow to the state when he allowed the Seminole Tribe of Florida to continue offering blackjack at its casinos for another 14 years, even though a state deal with the tribe authorizing the lucrative card games expired in 2015. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle based his decision on state gambling regulators allowing pari-mutuel operators to conduct designated player games, which he said breached what is known as an “exclusivity” agreement that the Seminoles had with the state.
In the summer jai alai dispute, the state argued that a law about converted summer jai alai permits allows permit holders to operate “at any jai alai permittee’s plant it may lease or build within such county.”
Meale, however, chided regulators for changing their policy about county restrictions, writing that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation had at one time construed the statute to allow licenses to be moved across county lines if they remained within the 35-mile restriction.
“It is unclear, though, when petitioner changed its position,” Meale wrote.
Lockwood accused state regulators of changing their policy “as a result of political pressure” from Fronton Holdings, a competitor of Summer Partners that owns the Miami locale which Summer Partners had leased for years.
Regulators filed the intent to revoke the license after being contacted by Fronton Holdings, Lockwood wrote in a court filing.
Lockwood argued that the change of policy amounts to an improper unadopted rule. Meale agreed.
“Respondent is entitled to the formal adoption of such a rule,” so that it can be decided whether the rule would be an invalid exercise of authority by the department, and so that it can also be subject to a rule-making review process, Meale wrote.
Lockwood said he was pleased with the decision.
“A government agency cannot just take away a license because they changed their mind,” he told The News Service of Florida. “This allows us to continue forward with our planned operations at Dania and upholds the division’s long-standing interpretation of the statute.”