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Candidates place their bets on casino fortunes

Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli (r) is seen with TV host Marcelo Tinelli (l) yesterday.

Scioli, Massa, Macri — most political parties have close ties with casino operators

With still a year and a half before general elections, political parties are yet to seal their alliances and appoint their presidential contenders.

However, part of these alliances is already a done deal — that of candidates with gaming czars.

Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli, Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa, Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri and UNEN-Broad Front leader Hermes Binner, among others, are getting along just fine with owners of casinos and bingo halls and strengthening a partnership that may prove useful during and after the 2015 elections.

These businessmen, in turn, expect a “return” on those investments that may come in the form of gaming licences, tax exemptions and other favours.

Argentina is reportedly the largest gaming market in Latin America. The country has 502 gaming halls and the amazing number of 70,419 slot machines.

A conservative estimate based on official data says that the country’s gamblers had bet more than 105 billion pesos during 2013. This means each Argentine has spent an average 2,560 pesos (some US$ 320) during the last 12 months in casinos, bingo halls and lottery tickets.

During the last few decades, when gambling activity regulations were decentralized and transferred to the provinces, local governments began to promote the industry as a critical source of revenue. In this context, many licences were then granted to businessmen with close ties to the provincial governments.

The Scioli administration is a perfect example of this.

The Buenos Aires province governor has inherited a gaming scheme outlined by former Peronist provincial leaders Eduardo Duhalde, Carlos Ruckauf and Felipe Solá.

It was Duhalde who introduced bingo halls and the online processing of lottery tickets, awarding Boldt a millionaire contract. Since then, the province pays the firm for the “on line, real time” processing of all popular lottery games in the district.

In 1998, officials from the Provincial Lottery Institute (IPLyC) allowed slot machines to be placed in bingo halls, thus distorting the original purpose of the game. Affected by financial constraints, the Solá administration (2002-2007) passed a law confirming the IPLyC’s resolution, but imposing a 34 percent tax on net winnings.

Years after taking office, Scioli vowed to take over the processing business, but later settled for a reduction in the price charged by Boldt. (In the meantime, the provincial administration tried to dictate bid terms to favour Cristóbal López’s bet-processing company TecnoAcción, but the governor desisted following legal action).

Scioli has been linked to Boldt director Guillermo Gabella, once an advisor for the current governor. In a November interview, Gabella told this reporter that, in fact, he has worked for the then-lawmaker, and that the person who introduced him to Scioli was the former Central Bank head Martín Redrado — now part of Massa’s economic team.

Massa and the Tigre Casino

In 2007, the Peronist leader was elected mayor of Tigre, the district where eight years before Boldt had inaugurated Trilenium, its biggest casino. Despite claims by neighbours and local Catholic Church leaders, he has never ordered the gaming hall to reduce its opening hours. Trilenium is still open from Monday to Monday, from 11am to 4am.

Last January, Cristóbal López signed a deal with with troubled company Sociedad Comercial del Plata (SCP) to buy its 50-percent share of Trilenium; the operation meant he and Boldt were no longer business enemies — at least in Massa’s district.

That very month, the Renewal Front leader was seen alongside Scioli and anti-government CGT leader Luis Barrionuevo during the inauguration of the Hotel Sasso Casino in Mar del Plata, which is run by the restaurants workers’ union.

Massa is also allied to a crucial link between the country and Codere — the former president of the Lanús club Nicolás Russo. Lanús and its classic rival Banfield were both sponsored by the Spanish gaming operator, and Russo has shared several meetings with the firm’s representatives, including an appearance during the 2012 edition of the “Copa Bingo Lanús” organized by Codere Argentina.

Russo is currently the Renewal Front’s main candidate in the district.

De la Sota’s deal with Roggio

In March of 2000, De la Sota allowed the installation of slot machines in Córdoba province. The move benefited businessmen Miguel Ángel Caruso and construction giant Roggio Group, who teamed in a joint venture called Compañía de Entretenimiento y Turismo (CET).

The province was soon flooded with gaming halls (with the sole exception of Córdoba City, where slot machines are forbidden by law). Off-season earnings from Villa Carlos Paz prove that these are far from mere tourist attractions.

But links between Córdoba’s provincial leader and gaming czars go beyond government measures.

Caruso also owns MAC Wagen, a luxury car dealership located on the fancy Rafael Núñez avenue in Córdoba’s capital city. On November 7, 2012, De la Sota arrived at the Nacional de Clínicas hospital in a black Chrysler Town & Country minivan. An inscription on the vehicle read “Test Drive — MAC Wagen.”

Macri and Angelici

The PRO administration has its own allied gaming mogul: the president of Boca soccer club Daniel Angelici.

Angelici is part of the inner circle of Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri. It was Macri who supported his bid for Boca president.

Originally a member of the Juventud Radical youth organization (part of the UCR party), Angelici began his career in the gaming business after opening small bingo halls in coastal cities of San Clemente and San Bernardo. Allied to businessman Daniel Mautone — who, in turn, owns several casinos in Mendoza province — he met the PRO leader in 2005 and seven years later launched PROA, his own grouping of pro-Macri Radicals.

His closest political allies are the City’s General Prosecutor Martín Ocampo and PRO national lawmaker Laura Alonso. (Alonso’s husband, Ernesto “Larry” Ochoa, used to share a poultry farm with Angelici’s wife María Inés Belloni).

In recent times, Macri was severely criticized for not abolishing an agreement between the national government and the City administration that benefits Cristóbal López.

The deal, signed in 2003 between former late president Néstor Kirchner and then City mayor Aníbal Ibarra, allowed the City to receive a part of tax income from gaming operations in the district — that, until then, were all in hands of national lottery Lotería Nacional.

And even though local lawmakers insist the City is entitled to levy all taxes on earnings from gaming activity (the Supreme Court had even allowed the City government to claim unpaid taxes), the PRO administration — with support from Victory Front (FpV) lawmakers — confirmed in December the deal, exempting gaming czar Cristóbal López from paying gross revenue taxes.

Other ties

Mautone, Angelici’s main partner, operates a major casino in the Entre Ríos’ city of Victoria, some 60 kilometres from Rosario. The province led by staunch Kirchnerite ally Sergio Urribarri, who has already announced his presidential aspirations, has 30 gaming halls — most of them casinos — and an astonishing 3,339 slot machines.

Florencio Randazzo, another Kirchnerite ally, was once the Government Minister of former Buenos Aires province governor Felipe Solá. It was him who signed the first automatic extension of bingo hall concessiones in the province in exchange for fresh funds for the province amid a situation of financial stringency. Strangely enough, when Governor Scioli repeated the move in 2012, Randazzo allies such as provincial lawmaker Mario Caputo blasted the provincial leader for doing so.

Former Santa Fe governor Hermes Binner, one of the strongest presidential contenders of the recently launched UNEN-Broad Front, has expressed his opposition of establishing casinos in populous areas. However, he did little against the opening of the Rosario City Centre, the largest casino in Latin America, authorized by a previous administration. True — it was former governor Carlos Reutemann, a dissident Peronist, who passed the 11,988 Casino and Bingo Law. But Binner, who comes from a long tradition of Socialists leaders against gambling legislation, just decided not to attend the inauguration of the gaming hall owned by López and Spanish company Cirsa. The casino is now operating its business without any disturbance from the Santa Fe government.

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