In the Motor City, Robert Zeff was the little engine that could and could and could and did–amassing a fortune as a heralded personal injury lawyer. He leveraged his success into gaming where he played with the big boys Donald Trump and Steve Wynn, both on the East Coast and West Coast, and was at the center of a high-profile tribal gaming expansion proposal for Bridgeport in 1995 backed by then Governor John Rowland but defeated by Fairfield County Gold Coast legislators.
Zeff, whose Shoreline Star, the parimutuel betting facility on Kossuth Street and prior to that a dog racing track and jai alai fronton, died on Sunday in his Westport home. He was 87 years old.
During the gaming faceoff between Trump–who worked to kill the gaming proposal and Wynn who spent roughly $10 million to position his empire for a commercial casino in Connecticut–it was Zeff who controlled an option on the property rejected by the state legislature for the gaming site, the old Carpenter Technology in the East End.
Wynn, with Zeff as his property key appeared to hold the cards for casino expansion. The industry was still fresh, just a few years after Governor Lowell Weicker cut a gaming compact with the state’s tribal nations for 25 percent of the slot take in exchange for gaming exclusivity, a deal that has prevented, then and now, anyone from cracking through the monopoly.
In the end Rowland gravitated to the exclusivity of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, fearing potential revenue losses from other gaming interlopers, with Zeff controlling an option on the property. Despite the state’s largest city’s appetite for the money and jobs from a major casino development, Rowland failed to hold several Republican senators in line and the proposal was defeated handily.
If Trump was the Prince of Publicity and Wynn the Prince of Neon, Zeff was the Prince of Darkness, a tall, fit, cunning, serpentine deal maker with slicked-back dark hair fronting a deep, swarthy complexion who spoke in a staccato baritone. He could intimidate but was rarely ever intimated, such was his confidence in negotiating a deal.
Zeff did not trust easily, but if he liked you he obliged with both friendship and mentorship. He also had a cutting sense of humor.
Decades ago, Zeff attended a small restaurant gathering to see off a friend heading to federal lockup. “I can’t believe you’re here. Thank you for coming,” said Zeff’s friend.
“I’m just making sure you’re getting there,” Zeff cracked with a grin.
In the blood-sucking jackal world of deal-making, Zeff knew all too well eyes could be on him.
In 1998, he paid a $15,000 fine to settle allegations that he violated the state ethics code treating a top gaming official to $500 worth of transportation, meals and rooms on a trip to Las Vegas.
As part of the settlement Zeff’s wife Susan assumed her husband’s place as head of a gaming-licensed LLC that operated the Bridgeport betting facility.
In his book War at the Shore, an account of the Trump-Wynn rivalry in Atlantic City, Richard “Skip” Bronson wrote that Rowland was gunning for both the gaming regulator Frank Muska and Zeff: “Investigators greeted Muska and Zeff at the airport when they returned from Las Vegas.”
Years later Rowland would have his own issues with the law, twice convicted of federal public corruption.
In recent years Zeff split his time between Westport and Florida with an eye on Connecticut’s gaming action and its potential impact on the Bridgeport parimutuel facility. Into his octogenarian years, Zeff was still physically fit, appearing at a fundraiser for Mayor Joe Ganim in 2019.
Services and burial will take place in Clover Hill Park Cemetery, Birmingham MI.
From Zeff’s law firm website:
Zeff and Zeff, P.C. was founded in 1957 when A. Robert Zeff joined his father Louis Zeff’s practice. During his 50 years as a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney, A. Robert Zeff has successfully focused his and his firm’s attention on the litigation and handling of catastrophic personal injury claims.
Known as a “Master of the Closing Argument,” his experience includes many television appearances, lectures and authorship of books and articles, including the chapter on “Closing Arguments” for the University of Michigan and Wayne State’s Institute for Continuing Legal Education. He was also the author of audio cassettes published by the Professional Techniques Library. William E. Barton, Executive Director, states: “You may be interested to know that of all the tapes in the most recent promotional campaign, yours were by far the most in demand.”
Newspapers, books and magazines alike love to talk about Mr. Zeff’s many personal achievements, both in law and personally. He is an active member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, which is limited to one hundred personal injury attorneys nationally, and he is one of four members from Michigan.
— Recently featured in Newsweek’s “Top 20 Personal Injury Trial Lawyers” showcase
— Awarded the legal profession’s highest rating for ability and integrity by Martindale-Hubbell
— Listed as one of the two top moneymakers in Michigan by Forbes Magazine
— In the books: The Best Lawyers in America and Detroit’s Powers and Personalities
— One of four Michigan attorneys in the Inner Circle of Advocates.
The firm is listed in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers under civil trial practice, personal injury and product liability law.