Untangling a Lobbyist's Stake in a Casino Fleet
Sunday, May 1, 2005
It was a gangland-style hit straight out of "Goodfellas."
A man in a BMW was driving down a quiet side street after an evening meeting at his Fort Lauderdale office when a car slowed to a stop in front of him. A second car boxed the BMW in from behind, then a dark Mustang appeared from the opposite direction. The Mustang's driver pulled alongside and pumped three hollow-point bullets into the BMW driver's chest.
The dead man was Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, a volatile 51-year-old self-made millionaire, a Greek immigrant who had started as a dishwasher in Canada and ended up in Florida, where he built an empire of restaurants, hotels and cruise ships used for offshore casino gambling. Boulis's slaying, still unsolved four years later, reverberated all the way to Washington. Months earlier he had sold his fleet of casino ships to a partnership that included Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff is best known as a target of a federal investigation in Washington into the tens of millions in fees he and a partner collected from casino-owning Indian tribes. But the wreckage from his brief and tumultuous time as owner of the gambling fleet threatens to overtake his Washington legal troubles.
Not long after Abramoff and his partners bought SunCruz Casinos in September 2000, the venture ran aground after a fistfight between two of the owners, allegations of mob influence, dueling lawsuits and, finally, Boulis's death on Feb. 6, 2001. Now, Abramoff is the target of a federal investigation into whether the casino ship deal involved bank fraud. According to court records, the SunCruz purchase hinged on a fake wire transfer for $23 million intended to persuade lenders to provide financing to Abramoff's group.
Although the outlines of the tale have become part of South Florida lore, what has not been disclosed are the full details of the alleged fraud at the heart of the transaction and the extent of Abramoff's role -- including his use of contacts with Republican Reps. Tom DeLay (Tex.) and Robert W. Ney (Ohio) and members of their staffs as he worked to land the deal.
The SunCruz story combines the South Florida of novelist Carl Hiaasen with the Washington of influence-peddling K Street: Thousands of pages of bankruptcy and other court records, along with dozens of interviews in Florida and Washington, reveal secret deals; a forged document; double-crossing partners; and socializing with government officials on a private jet, at the U.S. Open golf tournament at Pebble Beach, at a Monday night football game in a private box at FedEx Field, and at an exclusive party on Inauguration Day in Washington.
Gus Boulis never really wanted to sell SunCruz. He bought his first cruise boat in 1994 and swiftly added 10 more, building an enormously profitable business that took in as much as $30 million in yearly profits.
Boulis, a larger-than-life character, had always been a scrapper and something of a business genius. As a teenager, he jumped ship from a Greek freighter in Canada, where he made his first fortune with Mr. Submarine sandwich shops. After retiring to the Florida Keys, at the age of 30, he built another fortune with the popular Miami Subs chain. Then he launched SunCruz, known as a "cruise to nowhere" casino business. His midsize cruise ships left on day trips from nine ports around Florida, taking tourists, high-rollers and elderly players into international waters, beyond the reach of the state's anti-gambling laws.
Based outside Fort Lauderdale, the business was the bane of Florida officials, who thought Boulis flouted the law, and SunCruz's port city neighbors, who complained that drunken gamblers were urinating on their lawns. For years, Boulis beat back efforts by federal and state lawyers determined to shut him down.
In 1999, federal prosecutors charged Boulis with violating the Shipping Act by purchasing his vessels without being a U.S. citizen. Boulis agreed to pay a $1 million fine and sell his cruise line. The government gave him 36 months to do it and agreed to keep the settlement secret so Boulis would not lose money in a fire sale.
To sell his business, Boulis turned to his lawyers in the D.C. office of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP. Art Dimopoulos, a maritime lawyer, looked for buyers. Jack Abramoff, one of Dimopoulos's partners at Preston Gates, said he could find one.