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Former gaming exec has eye on Trump casinos


ATLANTIC CITY — Early in his career, as a gaming investigator in Nevada, he exposed a money-skimming scam in Las Vegas that inspired the 1995 movie “Casino” starring Robert DeNiro.

Some might say that Dennis Gomes' own colorful life as an investigator and an Atlantic City casino executive sounds like the stuff from a movie. Over the years, he's had headline-grabbing fights with Donald Trump and Steve Wynn and has concocted some of the wackiest casino publicity stunts ever.

Gomes, 63, left Atlantic City two years ago after a management shake-up at Tropicana Casino and Resort, where he oversaw operations. But he desperately wants to get back into the casino business here. To that end, he is making another sensational move by trying to buy out his former boss, Trump. “I'm going to keep on trying until I get something to get back here,” Gomes said in an interview Wednesday.

Officially, he would neither confirm nor deny he is involved in any talks with Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. But it has become widely known that Gomes is part of an investment group that may buy Trump Entertainment or at least one of its three casinos.

Trump Entertainment announced May 17 that it has received preliminary offers from would-be buyers, but has declined to name names. The company also has declined to comment on Gomes.

Gomes' financial backing is believed to come from real estate developer Morris Bailey, who runs the Manhattan-based JEMB Realty Corp. Gomes teamed up with Bailey and New Jersey builder Greg Matzel last year in an unsuccessful attempt to develop a Pennsylvania slots parlor in the Pocono Mountains.

At the same time they were looking at Pennsylvania, Gomes and his partners were searching for casino opportunities in Atlantic City. Although he stopped short of declaring the Trump casinos his target, Gomes said another venture with Matzel and Bailey is possible in Atlantic City.

“I've basically grown up in the Atlantic City environment. I absolutely love Atlantic City. I think it's the place to be,” he said.

Gomes noted that Atlantic City's 11 casinos compare favorably, revenue-wise, with the more than 40 gaming properties on the Las Vegas Strip. Atlantic City had $5.2 billion in gaming revenue in 2006, second only to Las Vegas' $6.7 billion in the U.S. casino market.

“I firmly believe the upside potential for Atlantic City is phenomenal,” Gomes said. “I always want to be here.”

In both Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Gomes built a reputation as one of the most unorthodox but capable executives in the industry. He was credited with nearly doubling the operating profits at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort while serving as president of Trump's flagship casino for four years in the 1990s.

“Dennis was tough but fair. I think he's also very insightful, competitive and passionate,” said Larry Mullin, who worked as the Taj Mahal's vice president of marketing under Gomes and now serves as president and chief operating officer of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.

Mullin added that Gomes cared deeply about his employees and would encourage them to think “outside the box” in giving them the freedom to come up with innovative ideas.

“He was not one for bureaucracy,” Mullin said. “So his personality came through when he had an idea or someone else had a concept that didn't stand up to the normal conformity people would use. He was trying to push the envelope.”

Atlantic City gaming executives still chuckle when recalling some of Gomes' bizarre publicity stunts during his time at Tropicana. A black belt in martial arts, he once celebrated the groundbreaking for a Tropicana expansion project by executing a pair of wall-shattering karate kicks.

Gomes gave Tropicana's gamblers a chance to win $10,000 if they could beat live chickens in a game of tic-tac-toe. The chickens almost always won. So did Tropicana, which scored volumes of free publicity in newspapers and on television by staging the oddball event.

Gomes also introduced some unusual gambling attractions to Atlantic City, such as a whirling money machine called the “Fortune Dome” and the “Amazing Cash Contraption,” an impossibly complex Rube Goldberg-like gadget that would spit out cash jackpots.

But Gomes' masterpiece was The Quarter, Tropicana's Latin-themed retail, dining and entertainment complex that gave Atlantic City a taste of Las Vegas-style nongaming attractions when it opened in late 2004. Gomes denied that his departure from Tropicana in 2005 had anything to do with the catastrophic collapse on Oct. 30, 2003, of a parking garage that was part of The Quarter. The accident, which killed four workers, was blamed on faulty design and construction.

After his start in the casino industry in the early 1970s as an investigator with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, he served as an investigator with the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. Then he returned to Nevada and held a series of executive positions at a handful of casinos, including the Golden Nugget, owned then by gaming mogul Steve Wynn.

Trump lured Gomes away from the Golden Nugget in 1991 to take over at the Taj Mahal, prompting a nationally publicized lawsuit by Wynn against Trump and Gomes for breach of contract. The lawsuit was settled when Trump agreed to pay $3.7 million to Wynn's company.

After four years at the Taj Mahal, Gomes had a messy breakup with Trump. Although Trump officials claimed Gomes was fired, Gomes insisted he resigned because he was not given an ownership stake in the casino.

Gomes says he has since patched things up with Donald Trump.

“I get along with him great,” he said.

The casino industry now waits to see if the two men can work out a deal.

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