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CALIFORNIA

State Gives Casino Owner a License -- With Strings

August 20, 2004|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — State gambling regulators granted Dr. Irving I. Moskowitz a permanent license Thursday for his card club in Hawaiian Gardens, but only after imposing conditions in response to concerns over his management.

The decision came after several hearings, beginning last December, before the state Gambling Control Commission in which Moskowitz's opponents alleged he had used proceeds from his gambling businesses to destabilize peace efforts in the Middle East.

Moskowitz, who lives in Florida, owns a casino and bingo hall in Hawaiian Gardens, the smallest city in Los Angeles County. He has given millions of dollars to build and support Jewish settlements in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The commission's 3-0 vote to approve the license came after commissioners proposed a series of conditions that include requiring Moskowitz to establish an independent auditing committee to review the finances of the casino, make quarterly reports to the state on any cheating or misconduct at the casino and to station licensed security guards around the facility.

Commissioners said they were concerned that Moskowitz was an absentee owner and lacked sufficient control of his business.

Commissioner Michael Palmer said he wanted to avoid "a situation like Enron" in which senior executives insisted they were ignorant of misconduct by employees.

Commissioners Dean Shelton and J.K. Sasaki joined Palmer on the vote. Commissioner Arlo Smith abstained, saying he had too many unanswered questions about Moskowitz and the casino.

In 2000, a report by a state joint legislative audit committee headed by former Assemblyman Scott Wildman alleged that Moskowitz had used massive cash donations to manipulate Hawaiian Gardens into approving the card club, which has been operating for the past several years on a provisional license.

The report also said that Moskowitz persuaded the city to illegally use redevelopment money to help build the casino and that he had violated the law in locating it near a school and a church.

Moskowitz's attorney, Beryl Weiner, denied the report's allegations at the time.

More recently, a group of current and ex-employees has alleged that loan sharking, job-selling and forced tip pooling were common within the casino.

The commissioners who voted to approve the license said they believed the state Department of Justice had thoroughly investigated claims of malfeasance and misconduct within the casino.

The hearing, which took place in a drab state building in Sacramento, was rife with references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Dr. Moskowitz has illegally fanned the flames of this unending violence with money he's exacted from his Hawaiian Gardens Casino," said Wildman.

Louie Lu, a former dealer at the casino and former informant for the state Division of Gambling Control, criticized the casino's general manager, Ron Sarabi.

Lu and other employees said they believe Sarabi allows activities such as loan-sharking and job-selling at the casino.

"The management is doing the wrong thing," said Lu, who was fired in 2003, but whose wife still works at the casino. "Nobody is able to control the management."

After the hearing, Sarabi declined to comment.

Both the casino and Moskowitz, however, received strong support from Leonard Chaidez, mayor of Hawaiian Gardens.

"What's at stake here is the economic progress of the whole city," he said.

Hawaiian Gardens, with a population of about 15,700, is less than a square mile in size. The city relies on the casino for 75% of its $11-million budget.

"We absolutely support that casino, and we absolutely support Irving Moskowitz as the operator. He's an honorable man," said Chaidez.

"We have the only senior lunch program that's free in the state of California because he's helped it get that way," he said. "You want to know where the money's gone? It's gone to the 80% increase to housing rehab. It's gone to a 70% increase for senior citizen trips."

Opponents of Moskowitz said they were discouraged by the commission's action.

"We don't understand how they could have said that [the state Department of Justice] thoroughly investigated" claims of misconduct at the casino, said Jane Hunter, co-director of the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem, which runs a website, stopmoskowitz.org. "We know it didn't."

"The people of California still don't know how bad you have to be in order to be denied a casino license," she said.

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