Seven Mile Casino, located seven miles from San Diego, seven from the border
  • Seven Mile Casino, located seven miles from San Diego, seven from the border
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Travel Interstate 5 through the South Bay and you will notice the flashy billboards beckoning you to Seven Mile Casino. Located on Bay Boulevard in Chula Vista, the casino is an extravagant piece of work replete with haute cuisine, an elegant bar, a glassed-in patio, a waterfall, and valet parking.

Seven Mile Casino held its grand opening on July 23. Chula Vista’s entire city council — Pat Aguilar, Pamela Bensoussan, John McCann, and Steve Miesen — joined casino owner Harvey Souza on the stage set up in front of the casino. Mayor Mary Casillas Salas stood beside Souza waving an oversized lucky seven of diamonds card at the seated crowd.

None of the public figures seemed to have any qualms about what appeared to be cheerleading for gambling, and they all seemed to have amnesia about the fact that Souza’s previous establishment, the Village Club Card Room on Broadway, had been raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigations in 2014 — and might still be under investigation.

A judge ordered EyeCandy strip club to shut down in June.

A judge ordered EyeCandy strip club to shut down in June.

All of this official support for one adult-entertainment establishment contrasts with Chula Vista’s successful effort to close down the EyeCandy strip joint less than a mile away. After a two-year legal battle, a judge ordered EyeCandy to shut down in June 2015.

Since then, Seven Mile Casino and Souza’s standing in the community have ascended. In September, the Spanish-language community newspaper La Prensa, newly acquired by political consultant Art Castañares, carried a full-page ad for Seven Mile Casino and a lifestyle story about Souza, titled, “Harvey Souza: A life dedicated to Chula Vista.” The piece describes Souza as an active philanthropist and states he has given millions to nonprofits such as South Bay Community Services. The La Prensa article includes an egalitarian quote from Souza: “We are all equal when we are at the gaming tables. Here, your socioeconomic status or profession do not matter.”

Souza is esteemed by local politicians, and he has always been good to them. In an earlier battle for more tables, Souza hired former mayor Cheryl Cox to be his consultant. In 1998, it was Cox who pled his case before the city council.

According to a Union-Tribune article from that time, Cox argued, “Mr. Souza is in this for his business and to perpetuate 53 years of solid ownership of a business that has been good for Chula Vista, and has not levied the kind of pressure upon its political figures that we might fear, should we be looking at institutions with 180–200 tables.”

Not everyone in Chula Vista was of Cox’s persuasion. Paul Pfingst, who was district attorney at the time, showed up before the city council to contest the expansion. A Union -Tribune article quoted Pfingst arguing, “[B]ecause there is a large volume of dollars running through the same person, the opportunity for money laundering and other types of things are more present.” He also pointed to “undue influences that large scale gambling can have on elected officials.”

Even into 2003, while she was serving as a Chula Vista Elementary trustee and seated on the city’s charter-review committee, Cox reported that she was working as a consultant for the Village Club Card Room. And when Cox ran for mayor in 2006, she received $13,000 from the card room for her campaign.

Souza has always been generous with politicians. Nowadays, the maximum campaign contribution individuals can make to a council candidate is $320 per election cycle. In the past round of elections, Souza and his wife Bette jointly gave Salas $600, McCann $600, Aguilar $620, and Bensoussan $620; councilmember Miesen was appointed, so he collected no campaign donations.

City representatives have pointed to the employment and revenue Souza’s establishment brings to the area. What the casino brings the city in licensing fees is significant. In March 2015, when the Village Club Card Room sought to increase the number of tables for the Seven Mile Casino, they promised an increased amount of money to the city per table. They proposed to increase the table license tax to a set rate of $7100 per table per quarter. There are 20 tables, so the city receives a half a million a year from the tables. An October 30 public record request states that the city has spent $380,425.97 on litigation with EyeCandy and invoices are still pending.

Not everyone was charmed by Souza or the idea of having a gambling establishment on Chula Vista’s bayfront. The casino is named Seven Mile because it is seven miles from the city of San Diego and the border of Mexico. Some residents have expressed concern that a luxurious gambling facility will bring increased crime to the area. When EyeCandy was open, locals often jokingly called this section of Bayfront Boulevard “the mile of vice.”

In August, a man committed suicide in the Seven Mile Casino parking lot.

In August, a man committed suicide in the Seven Mile Casino parking lot.

Another hazard of gambling is loss and indebtedness. One day in early August, a Twitter post by Star News reporter Robert Moreno announced, “CVPD [Chula Vista Police Department] says a man committed suicide in the parking lot of @SevenMileCasino after losing a few hands at cards a few days ago. More coming soon.”

A public record request obtained by the San Diego Reader did not contain the victim’s name or any other information beyond “Dead Body” and a Bayfront Boulevard location, but NBC7 corroborated the Star News reporter’s tweet. On August 1, NBC7 reported that the police had confirmed that the man’s wounds that led to his death were “self-inflicted.”

William Richter, a longtime resident and member of Chula Vista’s redistricting committee recently offered this comment, “Why is the city council spending millions to get rid of one vice business, but rolls out the red carpet for another vice business right next door? I also think one suicide is one too many. People should keep in mind the effects of gambling. It’s not all glamorous.”

But is the glamorous façade of Seven Mile Casino about to crumble? On September 29, the Union-Tribune reported that the state might revoke Seven Mile’s card-club license for failing to disclose a $3 million construction loan and other financial improprieties.

The official accusation from the California Gambling Control Commission includes more detail. A few excerpts follow.

“Respondents [i.e. Souza] allowed their co-venturers, who are not licensed as Seven Mile’s owners, to make, or substantially participate in, decisions regarding the card room’s operations and policies....

“Respondents received a $3 million loan from an entity affiliated with their co-venturers....

“Respondents engaged in patterns and practices that demonstrate a substantial disregard for prudent and unusual business controls and oversight. They operated Seven Mile, and its predecessor the Village Club, in an unsuitable manner.

In October 2014, the FBI raided the Village Club Card Room. When the raid occurred, files and computers were taken away. Asked for comment, special agent Darrell Foxworth said via email on October 3, 2015, “Normally we do not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation or provide updates concerning our investigations. However, given the law enforcement activity that took place within the last year, I will confirm that this is a pending matter.”

What’s next for Seven Mile Casino? Its current license expires at the end of 2015. Whether it’s renewed may depend on how it answers the state gambling commission’s accusations.

Souza’s attorney, Michael Green, didn’t respond to calls. However, Sacramento lobbyist and government relations attorney Jarhett Blonien responded October 12 via email and included a message from Souza: “After being in business for 70 years and the oldest existing card room in San Diego County, Seven Mile Casino and our legal counsel has gone to great lengths to be forthcoming and transparent in filling out all necessary paperwork to the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Gambling Control.

“Our family has worked with the Bureau since its formation in 1984. We are fully cooperating with them and look forward to the opportunity to clear the air in regard to these accusations. Harvey Souza, Owner of Seven Mile Casino.”

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Comments

Susan Luzzaro Nov. 18, 2015 @ 9:31 a.m.

Justino, that's a an interesting point about constitutional rights. But the state does have a moratorium on new card room licenses until 2020.

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Susan Luzzaro Nov. 18, 2015 @ 4:07 p.m.

Mike, Thanks for asking. If you look at the bottom of the second page, you will see that I called attorney Green several times, actually over a period of two days. I also called Mr. Souza and got an email message back from Jarhett Blonien which is included at the end of the article.

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shirleyberan Nov. 18, 2015 @ 4:51 p.m.

Demoralizing for the community, not just the kind of business, worse the crooked politicians.

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AlexClarke Nov. 19, 2015 @ 6:23 a.m.

Follow the money to see who in CV was paid off.

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eastlaker Nov. 19, 2015 @ 7:30 a.m.

Money talks. It hardly seems prudent and reasonable that the city of Chula Vista would so actively encourage the development of a casino when the owner/operator is under investigation by the FBI for a previous gambling business.

Interesting to read Mr. Pfingst's opinion from years back that such a business could be a money laundering opportunity. What a rare moment of clarity from Mr. Pfingst. (Would that he would be so astute these days--or have the public's best interest in mind). So, is money laundering now going to be something big in Chula Vista?

Interesting also about South Bay Community Services, an organization that purports to be about helping children and families, gets millions of dollars from school districts and government entities, yet cannot seem to document what they are doing! (Looks like a "protected business" to me--mind-boggling). And Mr. Souza has in the past contributed big bucks to them. What is the salary of the head of SBCS? Several hundred thousand dollars a year--when in all honesty, less than half that amount would be more reasonable.

It's just all part of the great web of connections here in south San Diego County. Friends doing for friends, support system for those in power--who always say they are going to help the community, but who really end up helping themselves.

Anyone care to argue with me?

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oskidoll Nov. 20, 2015 @ 12:15 p.m.

Bravo Eastlaker, for raising so many important reminders about the inter-connections and web of money...we really do need to follow that trail.

Especially important, in my view, is the continuing lack of accountability by South bay Community Services for the millions of public dollars it receives and for the sky-high salaries paid to their top executives. I think there is much 'back scratching' to be revealed.

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eruption Nov. 19, 2015 @ 8:05 a.m.

As the saying goes ,money talks and all else walks. Sounds like Pfingst may be correct. I thought we were attempting to make Chula Vista a place families would want to come to raise their families.

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Susan Luzzaro Nov. 19, 2015 @ 9:51 a.m.

Eastlaker, Interesting points and challenge. The additional gambling tables as well was passed at the March 3 council meeting. Below is an excerpt from council minutes that gives the names of those who spoke in favor of the table increase:

"The following members of the public spoke in support of staff's recommendation: - Nikki Jimenez, representing South Bay Community Services, who read a statement on behalf of Patricia Chavez - Lisa Cohen, representing the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce - Carmelita Vinson, Chula Vista resident Michael Green, representing the Village Card Room, thanked the Council and stated he was available for questions." Focuscom CEO Dan Hom appears in all the pictures with Harvey Souza at the grand opening. According to Focus.com's website Nikki Jimenez is their account manager.

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VigilantinCV Nov. 19, 2015 @ 11:49 a.m.

Dan Hom/Focus.com is no friend of Chula Vista. In the past, he has tried to ram down our throats 550 condo units in the Lower Sweetwater Valley next to the KOA Kampground. Thankfully, he and Bill Ostrem failed. He tried to influence the removal of Jade Bay mobilehome park. He was successful in closing it down, but sadly it has been a vacant property for years, and about 50 families had to move from a lovely park for nothing. Dan Hom was also a big promoter of SR-125, and while he won that battle, we all agree a toll-road was a losing proposition for Chula Vista. In 2006, Dan Hom ran for Chula Vista City Council. He convinced a lot of people that he was a financial wizard, siting how much money he had made in a business start-up. It turned out that was not telling the whole truth -- the business actually terminated in a bankruptcy. When we learned this, many of us threw our support to Steve Castaneda, and thankfully Hom did not get a seat on the City Council. Dan Hom/Focus.com is not a friend of Chula Vista!

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Susan Luzzaro Nov. 19, 2015 @ 12:10 p.m.

Vigilantin, Lots of history in your comment. More recently, in the story about the possibility of a bingo hall coming to Chula Vista, Mr. Stone, who is part owner of the Seven Mile Casino LCC, referred me to Mr. Hom to discuss the situation.

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eastlaker Nov. 20, 2015 @ 8:03 a.m.

So the big question is: just what sort of Chula Vista is being envisioned by our elected "leaders"?

One where the house has the advantage, I must conclude. Where discretionary income (and possibly even non-discretionary income) will be further eroded by gambling establishments in close proximity to lower income housing areas.

So that the city of Chula Vista becomes an accessory to tempting people--who, yes, are adults and can make their own decisions--but tempting people who may end up losing money they really can't afford to lose.

In addition, there is that money laundering possibility.

Gee, what a good idea, to have a couple of money laundering establishments close to the border. What kind of businesses is the city of Chula Vista trying to support?

This really looks like the path of madness or self-destruction, take your pick.

Either way, it is not the way of intelligent decision-making--unless our great "leaders" are planning to take their cut and run. But that would be expedient, not intelligent.

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joepublic Nov. 20, 2015 @ 9:02 a.m.

All of these businesses were apparently lobbied for.  It seems that the public should not only have a right know who these lobbyists are, but when and where their meetings with public officials take place along with their agendas. lt should be part of the public record for all to see.   To quote Californians Aware president, Donna Frye from a related Reader article,  “The public has a right to know who is meeting with their elected officials and why.…." Isn't it time for an ordinance in Chula Vista that would guarantee that right? By the way, is it true that this Casino is open 24/7?

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David Dodd Nov. 21, 2015 @ 7:48 p.m.

Nice work here. If you're banking statistical information, I'm in favor of strippers and gambling. I don't get Chula Vista. I lived in a hotel across the freeway from that strip joint and read a lot of stuff about how CHILDREN WERE SEEING STUFF THEY SHOULD NOT SEE! Give me a break. I saw more crap go on at the local laundromat than I ever saw in a strip joint or a casino.

Keep up the good work, Susan.

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jnojr Nov. 22, 2015 @ 10:51 a.m.

Someone, somewhere, is enjoying themselves in a manner I don't approve of! They must be stopped at any cost!

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Susan Luzzaro Nov. 22, 2015 @ 1:06 p.m.

David, you are a man of many vices --as well as talents. I use the E Street exit daily--I never saw anything externally. In the end, we'll see if they (EyeCandy) win on appeal and return to Bay Blvd. I think for many, as you gather, it's the disparity in the treatment of the two places.. I just hope they don't put a See's Candy down there, or then it will really be vice alley.

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eastlaker Nov. 23, 2015 @ 8:08 a.m.

Chula Vista's new slogan:

Finding the Seedy Side of Life? Join us in Chula Vista! We have all your low-rent needs!

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eastlaker Dec. 9, 2015 @ 2:42 p.m.

Well, well, well. I read today that this fine establishment was raided.

By the FBI.

Having something to do with money laundering and a few other things.

I really hate to say "I told you so"---------but what have our mayor and council members been thinking? Or is it what have they been drinking, as in the koolaid provided by those who contribute to campaign fundraising?

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joepublic Dec. 9, 2015 @ 6:09 p.m.

Looks like Pfingst was right on the money! Where was the local police chief, Bejarano?

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eastlaker Dec. 10, 2015 @ 10:08 a.m.

That was Pfingst's opinion years ago in a former life. Doubt he would be so outspoken now, it might alienate potential clients.

Regarding Bejarano, that is a really good question.

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