To the extent most people are even dimly aware of the Hawaiian Gardens Casino, it's probably from the card club's garish sign, which looms over the 605 Freeway like a giant neon basilisk.
Members of the state Gambling Control Commission, which will consider the casino's application for a permanent license at its meeting today, probably wish the club's public profile ended there.
Instead, state officials have observed that the Hawaiian Gardens licensing process has been the most contentious they've faced in the commission's three-year existence.
There's been name-calling, allegations of fraud and extortion, outbursts of emotion at two hearings the commission recently convened in Los Angeles.
And it all boils down to this: Is it wise for the state to give Dr. Irving I. Moskowitz an opportunity to print more money?
Moskowitz, 75, is the owner of the card club and, through his personal foundation, of the charity bingo hall next door. (The casino operates under a provisional license, pending a commission vote.)
A retired obstetrician now living in Miami Beach, he's famous in two places on Earth -- in Hawaiian Gardens, and in Israel, where he has funneled millions of dollars into causes that include buying up land in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and turning them over to Jewish settler groups.
The practice, which inflames local tensions, reflects his conviction that any compromise by Israel with its Arab and Palestinian neighbors is tantamount to a suicide pact.
The money for these efforts comes from the bingo hall, which brought in $26.3 million in revenue in 2001, the latest year for which the Moskowitz Foundation's public tax return is available. Out of that sum Moskowitz made $3.6 million in grants, of which about $530,000 went to Hawaiian Gardens community groups (mostly to a food bank he controls). Most of the rest went to Jewish and Israeli organizations.
In Hawaiian Gardens, meanwhile, the Moskowitz story is a lesson in what can happen when one person acquires so much money and power in a tiny, destitute place that his shadow falls over everything and everybody.
Whether Moskowitz is as venal, vindictive and manipulative an individual as his enemies paint him, or whether he's the savior of Hawaiian Gardens -- that's the view of the city's current leadership, who benefit from the $6-million annual income from the card club that provides 75% of their budget -- has never been established by a public, objective investigation.
It's conceivable that a licensing report by the attorney general's division of gambling control, which has recommended approval, has settled the question.
But the report hasn't yet been made public, so it's unclear whether it lays to rest decades of opponents' allegations of political chicanery and financial misdeeds.
"He's had a very corrupting influence on the city government," said Haim Beliak, a Los Angeles rabbi who heads the anti-Moskowitz Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem. "The state has failed in its responsibility to enforce the law."
Moskowitz's attorney and spokesman, Beryl Weiner, dismisses the casino opponents as owners of competing card clubs or people motivated more by opposition to Moskowitz's political and religious beliefs than to his activities in Hawaiian Gardens.
"Rabbi Beliak and his minions decided that Dr. Moskowitz is solely responsible for the fact that there's not peace in Israel," Weiner says. "A lot has been passed off as fact, but it just ain't so."
The very founding of the Hawaiian Gardens card club is enveloped in controversy. Moskowitz was granted the land in 1993 by the city's redevelopment agency, apparently on the expectation that he would develop a supermarket on the blighted parcel. Instead, within two years -- allegedly at Moskowitz's behest -- the city administration scheduled a public referendum to allow a casino on the site. Moskowitz funded the successful pro-casino campaign with more than $540,000 of his own money.
Various complaints that this process was crooked led to an investigation by a joint legislative audit committee in 2000. The committee staff said it found evidence that the redevelopment terms violated state law and that Moskowitz, through litigation, delay, pressure and sheer coziness with politicians, had managed the process to benefit himself.
The staff also aired allegations that Moskowitz and his agents manipulated the city government by threatening to cut off payments from the bingo hall that were critical to the funding of the tiny city's police force and other services. It noted, furthermore, that he had funded a recall campaign against two city officials who had tried to thwart his plans.
Weiner calls the legislative report a one-sided screed concocted by Moskowitz's enemies. He says Moskowitz financed the pro-gambling campaign because competing club owners opposing the measure were spreading misinformation.