9 Investigates: Huge campaign donations in Florida's casino debate



CENTRAL FLORIDA,None - State lawmakers recently killed plans for massive gaming resorts, but even opponents believe the plan will be revived as soon as next year.

WFTV investigative reporter George Spencer uncovered new campaign finance documents that show just how much cash a major casino operator donated to the very lawmakers who will ultimately decide the plan's fate.

When WFTV exposed an ad in December that aired only in Tallahassee, aimed right at lawmakers, it was clear: Supporters of resort casinos in Florida pulled out all the stops.

What we didn't yet know was how much cash big casino operators were donating to those same lawmakers at the same time. New records show that mega-operator Genting doled out almost $629,000 in 2011.

"It's apparent that Genting thought they could buy their way into Florida," said John Sowinski of nocasinos.org.

Sowinski said casino opposition was more grassroots and disconnected.

Genting is the Malaysian company behind the proposed Miami World Resort.

Of its 2011 donations, $385,000 went to the state Republican party. Both legislators behind the casino bill were Republicans.

The Democratic party got more than $100,000. Genting also gave to 35 individual state senators and representatives, mostly in November and December, right as the casino debate reached its peak.

Las Vegas Sands donated earlier: $25,000 in 2010.

Even though the first resort casinos were to be built in south Florida, the debate always had special impact in the Orlando area because of the potential impact on strip mall casinos. They might be banned altogether in the legislation.

The casino bill's sponsors pulled the item in February, but opponents and supporters say this debate is not over.

"Donations on this scale certainly make the issue relevant to policymakers, unfortunately," Sowinski said.

Opponents of resort casinos also donated to politicians last year, but those opponents ranged from local chambers of commerce to small business owners.

And since they did not donate under a single name, their total donations are nearly impossible to track.