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Bondi stands by her claim that drug dealers use casinos to launder money

As attorney General Pam Bondi on Thursday stood by her claim that drug dealers use casinos to launder their money, a prosecutor and special agent described the practice as common – but not the casino’s fault.

“Of the hundreds of drug trafficking cases that I’ve seen, there’s a definite correlation,’’ said Darrell Dirks, an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County where Bondi previously worked. He supervises drug trafficking and wire tap investigations for the state attorney for the 13th Circuit in Tampa and believes that drug dealers seek out the casinos because they can buy chips, play for a while and cash in their chips for cash.

Many of them have a “high rolling lifestyle” and they “want to engage in conversations where they are not overheard” and “can not easily be separated from the crowd,” Dirks said. “What better place to go if you want to meet someone in the middle of the night than a casino.’’

Last week, Bondi announced her opposition to a bill that would bring three destination resort casinos to South Florida and said she had spoken to law enforcement officers who told her that in Hillsborough County, “one of the last drug trafficking cases involved laundering money through a casino.'' When asked where, she said, the Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa.

Bondi emphasized that she was not referring to money laundering cases, as was implied in a Sun-Sentinel story that also ran in the Miami Herald on Thursday, but was talking about the pattern of drug dealers washing their cash through the casino. The Sun-Sentinel reported that the Hillsborough County state attorney has not had a single money laundering case involving casinos but did not mention the link to drug cases.

Robert Mazur, a former undercover federal agent who now heads a Tampa-based investigative services company, told the Herald/Times that law enforcement has a legitimate concern that casinos draw drug dealers, but so do banks.  Casinos operate just like a financial institution and are “very heavy in cash,” he said. But, unlike most banks, the majority of the receipts are in currency.

In his years working as an undercover agent for the IRS and Drug Enforcement Administration, he worked as a conduit for the leaders of drug cartels and their money laundering resources. “Their money launderers took me to their sources who were laundering funds and it was an owner and manager of a casino in Las Vegas, [the Royal Casino],’’ he said.

“The way I was taught by casino operators is they took my cash in under a fictitious name,’’ he said. “I delivered increments of cash in small denominations and showed a little bit of play. When it was time to take money out, I looked like the guy who was just playing a lot. It is tough to tell if this money is coming through the door or if it’s money coming through action.”

Dirks said that evidence collected at trial, “wire taps and post arrest cooperation of drug traffickers” has repeatedly shown a pattern of drug traffickers using casinos as part of their broader money laundering operation. But, he added, proving they are engaged in money laundering “is very difficult to do” and it is “another reason why it is so attractive.”

He emphasized, however, “this is not an indictment on the people that run gambling casinos.’’ He said that the Seminole Tribe always "goes the extra mile" to assist local prosecutors in their investigations and he had high praise for the Hard Rock's willingness to cooperate with officials.

“They’re not doing anything wrong as far as I know,’’ Dirks said. “They’re not turning a blind eye. It’s not apparent it’s happening – that’s why drug traffickers do it.”

Bondi agreed. “I am in no way implying the Hard Rock casino is in any way involved,” she said Thursday.

Gary Bitner, spokesman for the Seminole Tribe, said "there is a big difference between attempted money laundering and actual money laundering, especially when it’s the casino’s diligence that helps catch the bad guys.’’

“The Tribe is proud of its solid efforts to effectively thwart money laundering at its casinos and appreciates the positive comments of the Hillsborough County assistant state attorney,'' he said in a statement Thursday.

The Tribe has said it does not condone illegal activities at its seven casinos and each of the facilities “closely follow federal anti-money laundering rules by reporting all suspicious incidents to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which is then responsible for alerting appropriate law enforcement agencies.’’

Seminole Tribe chief James Billie told the Sun-Sentinel that he was disappointed in Bondi’s previous statement which he called “damaging to the reputation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.”

Bondi said Thursday she the story also inaccurately referred to a conversation she had with a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy at a fundraiser for an ill deputy as “a party.”