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.
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.”
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.”