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Metro June 12, 1996

Cops probe Detroit lawyer's trip to Las Vegas

By Richard Willing / Detroit News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Detroit lawyer A. Robert Zeff, who has sought to bring casino gambling to the Motor City riverfront, is being investigated in Connecticut for taking a Las Vegas vacation with that state's chief gambling regulator hours after the official voted to approve a Zeff proposal.

Zeff runs a greyhound race track in Connecticut and practices law in Michigan.

At issue is Zeff's relationship with Francis J. Muska, Connecticut's former Gaming Policy Board chairman, who is being investigated for possible acceptance of illegal gratuities, Connecticut State Police Detective Bill Kelly said.

Muska resigned last month after state police learned of the Las Vegas trip.

"We want to know what Zeff's involvement was and if he did any criminal wrongdoing," Kelly said. "If we can prove criminal wrongdoing on the part of either Muska or Zeff, they'll be appropriately charged."

In a telephone interview Zeff, 62, declined to answer questions about his relationship with Muska but said of the investigation: "There's nothing to find."

Calls to Muska's office at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, where he is a vice-president, were not returned.

But Zeff said he believes the investigators are interested in more than his relationship with Muska. He claims their goal is to explore the source of the $30 million he spent to build his dog track last year in Connecticut. The money, Zeff said, was his own.

Zeff said the investigation could harm prospects for the $400 million gambling-entertainment complex he proposed for the Detroit riverfront near the Renaissance Center in November 1994 only if it finds wrongdoing. "It won't," he said.

The plan has been stalled by financing difficulties and lack of legislative approval. Zeff said he would be eager to "jump back in" if gambling is legalized in Detroit.

Zeff, who made millions representing medical malpractice victims in Detroit, has owned and operated a professional jai alai court in Bridgeport since 1976.

Under Connecticut law, wagering is allowed on jai alai, sort of a Basque version of squash, and owners must pass a background investigation. Zeff passed when he took control of the casino in 1976.

Late last year, Zeff opened a second gambling business, the Shoreline Star greyhound track, in Bridgeport. When state regulators asked him to undergo another background check, Zeff asked for a waiver.

"Everything is kosher," he said in an interview. "But by the time they're done, well, I'm sure in your life you've done many things ... and who wants someone (investigating) each and every little thing? It's an invasion of privacy, it costs you a fortune, it's not a pleasant thing."

In Connecticut, the cost of the background investigation is borne by the subject. Zeff estimates his investigation would have cost him between $400,000 and $500,000. The state police estimate is about $15,000.

In late April, the Gaming Control Board granted his request to have the new background checked waived by a 3-1 vote. Later that day, state investigators say, board chairman Muska, who voted for the waiver, visited Zeff's dog track and was driven to Kennedy Airport in New York City by Zeff employees. He and Zeff then flew to Las Vegas together, a possible violation of state policy, investigators say.

Investigators, tipped off by a state employee who was present at the track, found Muska's car parked in the driveway of Zeff's Westport, Conn., home.

The Connecticut flap is another chapter in the Zeff career, which has oscillated between the courtroom and the gambling floor.

In the 1970s, he handled a pair of up-market Detroit divorces, including Barbara Posselius Ford's $5.5-million uncoupling from Walter Buhl Ford III and Cristina Ford's $10-million severance from Henry Ford II.

He became well-known nationally for winning large settlements in medical malpractice cases, earning $4 million in 1988 alone, according to a Forbes magazine survey.

Regularly, he has been in the news.

In 1985, the Michigan Attorney General's Office investigated Zeff for filing for nonresident tax status while he allegedly lived and worked in Detroit. Zeff denied the charge. In 1986, a $2,500 computer from Zeff's office was found among the possessions of Jerome Bronson, a Michigan Court of Appeals judge who killed himself after being accused of taking bribes. Zeff said he had no knowledge of how it got there.

None of the investigations led to charges against Zeff.

In 1988, Zeff headed a group seeking to bury millions of tons of hazardous industrial waste in the African nation of Guinea-Bissau, at a potential profit of more than $100 million. The plan was scrapped after being publicized in Europe, Africa and Michigan.

Zeff, who last argued a lawsuit two years ago, was asked why he has virtually forsaken that lucrative field for the trouble and uncertainty of the gambling business.

"I'm not sure," he answered. "I guess I've always had a desire to take on challenges, new challenges."

Copyright 1996, The Detroit News

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