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Council-Developer Friendships Draw Attention : Unrealized Poker Club Splits Cudahy Officials

Times Staff Writer

When Charles King first proposed building a card club in this mile-square city, it seemed like the kind of deal that could only turn up aces.

As King billed it, the Silver Saddle Casino would be the largest revenue producer for the city of Cudahy, pumping $1.9 million each year into municipal coffers.

That was nearly four years ago. Today, there are few tangible signs that King’s vision will become a reality soon; as yet, no club has been built, let alone begun to operate.

Instead, the planned card club has become the focal point for a pitched political battle at City Hall, a conflict that has sharply divided the council and, in King’s view, seriously hampered efforts to get the project off the ground.

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In addition, many city officials say the tussle has spilled over into other civic matters, with opponents and supporters of King lining up against one another on issues unconnected to the card club.

Willing to Battle

“The fight over the card club overshadows all other issues in the city and affects all other issues,” City Manager Gerald Caton said.

Nonetheless, members of the council seem more than willing to continue the battle.

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Councilmen John Robertson and Joseph Graffio, staunch opponents of King, maintain the poker club promoter has cultivated personal relationships with the three other members of the council--Mayor Faye Dunlap and councilmen Lynwood Evans and Gabe Zippi.

“My judgment is that they’re far too close to Chuck King,” Robertson said.

Dunlap, Evans and Zippi all flatly deny that their dealings with King are anything but aboveboard and ethical.

“They always think some kind of skulduggery is going on,” Evans said. “Some people find a snake under every rock.”

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In addition, the three maintain that Robertson and Graffio are spreading rumors in an attempt to sabotage King’s efforts and, in turn, bring another card club promoter into town. Robertson and Graffio deny those charges.

Robertson and other critics say the three council members have become a voting block for King in a series of decisions that have gone favorably for him. Among them were:

- A council decision in January on a 3-2 vote, with Robertson and Graffio opposed, that altered the city’s gambling ordinance, giving the club more leeway in the types of games and other entertainment that may be provided.

Robertson charges that the changes, which include permitting the Chinese tile game pai gow, go against the spirit of the city’s gambling ordinance and give King too much leeway. King, meanwhile, maintains that the changes are necessary to make his club competitive with other area casinos where pai gow is being played.

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- The council’s 3-2 vote on May 6 to return a $50,000 deposit that King had made when he originally applied to build the club. Robertson and Graffio, on the losing end of the vote, pointed to a clause in the city’s agreement with King saying the money should not be returned until the club was in operation.

The other council members, however, said King deserved to have the money returned because he had purchased a cinder-block building on two acres in south Cudahy, and had therefore “completed construction.”

The squat 7,000-square-foot building, which King purchased in March for $541,000, once housed a motor vehicle smog-control station. Although King originally said he wanted to expand the building for the club, he now plans to demolish the structure and build a new 40,000-square-foot facility.

- A May 6 decision by the council, again on a 3-2 vote with Robertson and Graffio opposed, to ease parking regulations for the club. Although staff members suggested King provide one parking space for each seat in the club, the council’s decision raised that ratio to one space for every three seats.

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Dunlap, Evans and Zippi said that each of those decisions was made with the city’s best interests in mind. As they see it, the card club needs to be built to bolster the city’s revenues.

“Chuck is a young man who’s just trying to get ahead,” Zippi said. “He’s opening up a business. It just so happens that it’s a casino.”

Tough On the Project

Evans said the council, if anything, has been tough on the project, noting that other area cities have given redevelopment land for card clubs.

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“Every other city has leaned over backwards to bring something in,” Evans said. “But we haven’t leaned over at all.”

King, a former real estate agent in South Gate who grew up in nearby Huntington Park, said his relationship with the council is no different than that of any other businessman.

“Is the gambling industry any different from any other industry? Should it be?” he said. “I’m a businessman. I am no more friendly in this city with the council people than I was as a businessman in South Gate.”

King said he considered his three allies on the council to be “friends” and acknowledged that they occasionally stop by the headquarters of Tanlo Inc., the firm King founded with his wife, Ana, to develop and run the gambling club. Tanlo operates out of the building King bought in south Cudahy.

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“More often than not, they’ll stop by because they’re curious about the progress of the project. The city will reap a large reward when the club opens,” King said.

King said Robertson and Graffio have lashed out at him because of political jealousies.

“The reason they’re upset is because for so long they ran the city of Cudahy, and now you have a situation where they’re not in the dictator’s seat,” King said. “Before I came into Cudahy I guess they did whatever they wanted to do.”

Shipboard Poker

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King said he first began considering the idea of establishing a card club in the late 1970s, when he and Ana used to play poker at the El Dorado Club in Gardena.

At first King thought about attempting to open a club aboard the Queen Mary, but later decided to try his hand in Cudahy because it was his “home turf.”

King was introduced to several council members by Jimmy Dunlap, Mayor Faye Dunlap’s husband. Dunlap, a real estate agent, knew King while both men served on the Southeast Board of Realtors.

Efforts to get the club off the ground were embroiled in controversy from the beginning. A month after King presented his proposal, then-City Manager Frank Usher resigned over the council’s support for the gambling plan.

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The council voted to put the issue on the December, 1981, ballot. Before the election, City Atty. Richard Laskin ruled that the measure would need a two-thirds vote. The measure fell short by seven votes. The council, however, decided to approve the ordinance anyway, saying they felt the city attorney had made a mistake.

That sparked a lawsuit from a group of poker opponents. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that the two-thirds vote was permissible and because the election was run under that premise, he ordered the council to reverse its decision.

Undeterred, the council again placed the issue before the voters in December, 1982. Voters overwhelmingly approved the gambling ordinance and a short time later the council issued a poker club license to King.

King attempted in 1983 to purchase 10 acres on which he planned to build a 100-table club, but the deal foundered when financial backing fell through.

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Deadline Extended

Because of that, King was unable to meet a December, 1983, construction deadline. But after several hearings on the matter in 1984, the council decided to extend the deadline to September, 1985.

In the meantime, another controversy surfaced. King said he had a funding commitment for the card club from Seacoast Investment Group, a Virginia-based financial consortium. That commitment, however, came into question when Seacoast told city officials that only preliminary contacts had been made with King and that they were unaware the money was to be used for a casino.

Tanlo’s financial footing again became an issue in November, 1984, when the project’s architect obtained a court order to seize $27,000 owed by King. As part of the ruling, a lien was placed on the $50,000 King deposited with the city.

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But King said the architect went to court merely to document that the money was owed. A judge ordered the lien, he said, after the architect’s lawyer mistakenly sought the ruling because of a “communication gap.” He later settled with the architect.

Although Robertson and other critics have continued to question King’s ability to attract funding for the project, the poker club promoter insists financial arrangements are nearing completion.

“We’re very close to tapping our funding,” he said. Architectural plans are now being drawn up, King said. He refused, however, to speculate when construction might begin on a new building.

“We’re moving right along with the current plans,” King said. “Things are lining right up.”

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