Tribe’s Casino Built Without Red Tape
By Jeff Testerman, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
February 5, 2003
No building permit, no site planning, no local oversight and no impact fees were required.
As a sovereign nation, the Seminole Tribe is free of many government encumbrances in building its $100-million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa. The 12-story project is expected to draw five times as many visitors every day. Neighbors are complaining about noise, trash and its impact on traffic.
TAMPA — Dignitaries sipped champagne Tuesday while toasting a historic day for the Seminole Tribe: the “topping off” of a 12-story Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, a $100-million project designed to achieve financial self-sufficiency for the tribe. It also was a historic day for Hillsborough County.
The hotel-casino-restaurant complex may be the largest private project built in the county without comprehensive site planning, impact fee requirements, citizen input or local government oversight.
Because the Seminole Tribe is a sovereign nation, it is exempt from those requirements. The Cordish Co., a Baltimore developer, and Perini-Suitt, a joint venture contractor handling the Hard Rock construction, did not even need to pull a building permit before starting work on the 250-room hotel and 90,000-square-foot casino.
The tribe intends to pay an estimated $1-million to $3-million to improve and widen Orient Road along the entranceway to the project, said James F. Allen, Seminole gaming operations chief executive. But the tribe will contribute next to nothing for the project’s impact on utilities, drainage and public safety.
“It’s pretty amazing that something that size could go up there without impact fees,” said Jim Hosler, research director for the Tampa-Hillsborough Planning Commission. “Any other private project would have required extensive site planning and buffering, as well as impact and capacity fees.”
The casino-hotel, scheduled to open in April 2004, replaces a more modest tribal gambling hall on the site. The number of patrons is expected to increase from about 2,000 a day to 10,000.
Residents in the 300-home East Lake Park subdivision, situated just west of the Seminole reservation, said they believe their property values are falling because of the construction mess and increased traffic congestion.
“The Indians do what they want to do,” said Mike Wells, 55, a retired telephone company and school district employee. “Everyone knows they’re making money hand over fist over there. But we get the traffic, the trash, the debris, the noise.” Wells blames three burglary attempts at his home on hard-luck gamblers and said emergency vehicles will have difficulty getting to many homes when overflow casino traffic lines East Lake streets.
“When I moved here 22 years ago, the neighborhood was quiet and had a rural feeling,” Wells said. “Now who would want to move here? And it can only get worse.”
At about 3:30 a.m. Saturday, an inebriated casino patron drove her car through the chain-link fence next door to Jeri Barron’s East Lake home, underscoring her campaign to get the tribe to put up a retaining wall between the Seminole project and the neighborhood.
“The Indians were here first, and I’m sure the people who stay in the hotel will spend their money here, which will be good for the local economy,” Barron said. “But Orient Road is extremely congested, and a wall would definitely improve the neighborhood.”
Wells said East Lake’s initial overture to the tribe a year ago for a retaining wall was met with “snickers.” The issue remains under discussion.
Allen said the Hard Rock project is being built to all state and federal building standards and will be an economic boon for all of Hillsborough. He said the now-completed 1,600-car garage should alleviate the parking concerns of East Lake neighbors.
The hotel-casino expects to employ 2,500 people and will spend more than $35-million annually for goods and services after opening next year, Allen said.
“We’re not cutting any corners,” he said. “We want this to be a world-class facility.”
The hotel-casino will feature several restaurants and lounges, a sports bar, a music venue and nightclub, a Hard Rock retail store and a pool-spa complex. For gamblers, the casino will have 1,500 video gambling machines, 55 poker tables and a bingo gallery serving up to 800 patrons.
The Seminole Tribe pioneered Native American gaming, opening the first Indian casino in Hollywood, Fla., where a $300-million Hard Rock Hotel Casino project is under way. The tribe derives 90 percent of its income from gambling profits, and each of the 2,800 tribal members now receives a monthly dividend of $3,000.
The Seminoles have sought the right to offer full Las Vegas-style games, such as blackjack and roulette, but have been rebuffed by the state. The issue is now in the hands of the U.S. Department of Interior, which could resolve the impasse with new gaming rules.
The tribe expects that professional gaming management will erase a legacy of scandal at the Tampa casino.
Three casino employees were indicted in a bingo-fixing conspiracy in 1991. Three years ago, the National Indian Gaming Commission fined the tribe $3-million for an illegal contract it had with Pan American & Associates, the management team that oversaw the Tampa bingo hall.
Allen brings to the tribe 23 years of gambling experience as an executive with firms such as the Trump organization, Hilton Hotels and Park Place Entertainment. He is joined by Edward J. Jenkins, a 30-year FBI agent who is the tribe’s new director of gambling compliance.
The Tampa casino ended up at its current location north of Interstate 4 because of the discovery in 1980 of the remains of 140 Seminoles buried in the 1830s at the current site of the Fort Brooke parking garage.
The Indian remains were reinterred on 81/2 acres near Orient Road, where then-Seminole Chairman James Billie pledged to build and maintain a cultural museum.
The remains, buried behind the casino construction project, are untouched, Allen said, and will become the site of a Seminole monument. But the cultural museum was torn down to make way for the casino. There are no plans to replace it.
Indian Self-Policing is a Bad Idea
March 1, 2002
A Times Editorial © St. Petersburg Times
A measure before the Florida House today is a relief bill for thugs, thieves, hustlers and crooks. It would encourage an expansion of gambling on Indian lands even as it stripped police and the courts of the authority they need to protect the public.
Make no mistake: The bill (HB 1771) before the Council for Smarter Government would worsen the state’s problem with enforcing laws on Indian reservations. It strips the state of jurisdiction over crimes committed on Indian land, handing that job to rent-a-cops bought and controlled by the tribes. The legislation also gives the tribes control over civil causes of action that arise on Indian reservations.
It is dumbfounding the House leadership would allow Hialeah Republican Ralph Arza to fast-track a bill that presents such safety risks to law enforcement and the public. Beyond safety concerns, removing the power of sworn police to respond would compromise society’s ability to bring criminals to justice.
Real cops, not surprisingly, oppose the measure. “If they pass this law, they will turn the Indian reservations into a campground for criminals and thieves,” said Glades County Sheriff Jim Rider. Giving jurisdiction to the tribes to self-police also could throw even violent crimes like rape and murder into a limbo-land. “Reservations would turn into a safe place for fugitives,” the Florida Sheriff’s Association warns. Trial lawyers said the bill would block investigations of everything from auto accidents to consumer fraud, regardless of whether the victim was Indian.
Perhaps the kindest thing to say about Arza is that he didn’t think this through. His colleagues should stand with law enforcement and kill this legislation.
Common Sense Wins
Editorial, Orlando Sentinel
September 4, 2001
Our position: The Department of Interior’s ruling on federal-trust lands is a good one.
Common sense prevailed when the U.S. Department of Interior overturned a Clinton administration rule that could have made it easier for Native American groups to open gambling casinos.
The overturned rule, adopted in the waning days of the Clinton administration, would have allowed Native American tribes to have land they own designated as a federal trust without the consent of a state’s governor. Before the Clinton rule change, the gubernatorial approval was required.
Designating the land as a federal trust puts it beyond the jurisdiction of state and local laws. That’s a key step to getting further approval to operate casinos, even if state laws prohibited such activity.
The Department of Interior’s decision to overturn the Clinton administration rule is particularly significant for Osceola County, where the Seminole Tribe of Florida bought 1,100 acres earlier this year.
Tribal officials insist that they have no plans to build a casino on that land, but that position could change in the future.
A gambling casino would certainly be the most disruptive use for that land, but other potential uses, such as a theme park, also could cause problems for the region if the tribe did not have to conform to state and local laws. A large-scale development could have enormous impact on traffic, drainage and municipal services far beyond the boundaries of a Native American-owned land.
It’s only fair to all citizens of a state that the governor has a say in whether Native American tribes can be exempted from state and local laws.
In addition to throwing out the Clinton administration rule, the Interior Department proposed other thoughtful changes to the federal-trust-designation process. They include:
Requiring tribes to show that the federal designation will provide a major economic benefit to the Native American group. That is important to make sure that any development on tribal federal-trust land will benefit the Native American people and not outsiders. At some casinos owned by other tribes, outside groups hired to run the establishments have collected huge sums of money.
Requiring counties or states that are opposed to the designation to show clear evidence that putting land in federal trust would be detrimental to the community. Fairness demands that any government objection not be a knee-jerk reaction.
Making tribes comply with local land-use regulations on newly established federal-trust land. That is key to ensuring that the development does not become a burden on the surrounding community and its taxpayers.
These proposals, which are open to public comment through November, make sense and should be made permanent by the Interior Department.
Tribal Sovereignty Hinders Prosecutor
Murder trial for 1997 drownings set to begin in Dade
By Jay Weaver
The criminal case seemed clear-cut. Kirk Douglas Billie, a Miccosukee Indian, is accused of driving his ex-girlfriend’s car into an Everglades canal in 1997 — and drowning their two young sons, who were asleep in the back.
But the state’s efforts to prosecute Billie, 32, for first-degree murder have been muddied from the start.
The Miccosukee tribe, citing its sovereign-nation status under federal law, has successfully blocked almost every move by the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office to subpoena critical witnesses from the tribe to testify against him.
Frustrated prosecutors, while not talking publicly about the case as it goes to trial Wednesday, suggest that the Miccosukees are not only a separate nation — but one seemingly above the law.
In recent court papers fighting the tribe’s effort to quash subpoenas for Miccosukee police officers, prosecutors seemed at wit’s end over the extent of the tribe’s sovereign immunity as approved by Congress. January 16, 2001
Tribal leaders “posit that if a Miccosukee Reserved Area resident shot and killed a citizen in front of the MRA police station, and the officer were the only witness, the case could not be prosecuted in state or federal court without the tribe’s written permission,” Assistant State Attorney Reid Rubin wrote. “This cannot be true.”
Rubin may be exaggerating to make his point — after all, Circuit Judge Leon Firtel last week upheld the state’s right to subpoena officers to testify at Billie’s trial.
But there is a good measure of truth in his hypothetical example.
“They are, to some extent, a separate nation within our own nation, but I wouldn’t agree they are above the law,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Bruce Rogow, who represents the Seminole Indians in federal matters, including their dispute over gambling rights with Florida.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
The state’s murder case against Billie is not the first time the sovereignty issue has come up in recent years.
In 1999, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stanford Blake rejected the state prosecutors’ request to revoke the bond of Tammy Gwen Billie and send her back to jail. She was arrested by Miccosukee Police on a driving-related offense after she had been charged with DUI manslaughter on the Tamiami Trail and released the previous year.
In his decision, Blake noted that Billie’s second offense occurred on the reservation — a sovereign nation whose residents have special rights.
Early in the nation’s history, Congress established the sovereignty doctrine by giving reservation Indians the right to make their own laws. Dating back to 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the laws of the states could have “no force” and the citizens of those states had “no right to enter” Indian reservations — without congressional action.
The Miccosukee tribal land is within Everglades National Park. Until 1998, tribe members lived there under a special permit from the National Park Service.
That year, Congress enacted the Miccosukee Reserved Area Act, allowing the tribe to live permanently in the park. Significantly, the act created the Miccosukee Reserved Area — a federally recognized Indian reservation.
In effect, that designation has provided Billie with his strongest defensive weapon. The tribal council has refused to cooperate with state prosecutors, declaring the drownings, which happened off the reservation, were an accident and that the matter has been settled among the Miccosukee leaders with a handshake.
In a major setback to the state’s case, U.S. District Judge Paul Huck found that the tribe’s sovereign immunity blocked federal marshals from issuing witness subpoenas to Miccosukee Indians who saw Billie the night of the drownings — including his ex-girlfriend, Sheila Tiger, mother of the two young boys who died.
Prosecutors grew so frustrated with the tribe that it asked Miami-Dade police to pick up Tiger as she went off the reservation last month so she could give pretrial testimony.
Tiger, 24, is the state’s star witness — although she has given contradictory statements about whether Billie knew their sons, Keith, 3, and Kurt, 5, were in the back of her Chevrolet Tahoe when he drove it into the Tamiami Canal.
Billie’s prosecution has been riddled with roadblocks from the Miccosukees, who have closed ranks almost defiantly.
In court papers, Rubin, the lead prosecutor, has accused the tribe of using its sovereign status to cripple the state’s case by denying access to a half-dozen key Indian witnesses and three tribal police officers.
“The tribe has made a conscious decision to help the defendant and the defense while obstructing the state prosecution,” Rubin wrote.
In court papers filed with a state appellate court, prosecutors revealed their frustration with the tribe’s use of sovereign immunity in its bid to block the testimony of the three Miccosukee officers, including the original investigator, James Fierro.
In a footnote, Rubin claimed the tribe’s attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, implied that the tribe was above the law when he disagreed with the prosecutor during a recent court hearing.
Lehtinen did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Billie’s attorneys, Edward O’Donnell and Diane Ward, said they have not relied on the tribe’s sovereign immunity to defend their client. Rather, they are trying to suppress his statement and other evidence on constitutional grounds that it was illegally obtained by Miami-Dade Police on June 27, 1997, the day after the drownings.
Judge Firtel will decide on Billie’s motion to suppress his police statement today, less than a day before jury selection is scheduled to begin.
Florida Murder Investigation Pits Prosecutors Against a Tribe
January 14, 2001
By Dana Canedy, The Associated Press
MIAMI, Jan. 13 — As they slept in the back seat of their mother’s Chevrolet Tahoe one evening in June of 1997, 3-year-old Keith Tiger and his 5-year-old brother, Kurt, had no warning that their tranquility would soon be interrupted and that within hours they would be lying dead at the bottom of a canal that their father drove them into before he jumped to safety.
No one disputes that Kirk Billie drove his estranged girlfriend’s truck into the canal in the Everglades with their young sons inside that June night. And so the case might seem to be a horrific but straightforward matter for a jury to decide. Either Kirk Billie is a killer who drowned his sons to punish their mother, as prosecutors argue, or he is the victim of a regrettable accident and had no idea they were in the truck when it plunged into the water, as his lawyers contend.
But there is nothing at all straightforward about the Billie case, which goes to trial Jan. 22 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
What sets Mr. Billie apart from all other murder defendants awaiting trial in circuit court here is that he is a Miccosukee Indian and nephew of a prominent member of the tribe’s governing council, which is fighting to keep him out of prison.
The Miccosukee tribe, which consists of about 700 people, has asserted its rights as a sovereign nation to try to prevent Mr. Billie from facing prosecution. Tribal leaders say that they alone have jurisdiction in the case and that their Tribal Court has decided to “forgive” Mr. Billie.
But the Miami-Dade County prosecutor’s office says that is not good enough. It is prosecuting Mr. Billie on two counts of first-degree murder and is seeking the death penalty.
The boys drowned in a canal on state property near the reservation, which is located in the Everglades.
The fight over the tribe’s rights and the state’s authority in the Billie case is unique because it involves murder charges. But the case is just the latest example of how some tribes are more aggressively using their powers as sovereign entities to prevent governmental intervention in what they consider tribal affairs, say experts on Native American law and culture. It also highlights the conflicts that often arise when civil and criminal penalties imposed by tribal courts are out of step with federal and state court standards.
The Miccosukees’ settling of the case involved a handshake and a vow to put the matter to rest. “The tribe clans met three weeks after the incident and in accordance with the tribe’s customary and traditional dispute resolution, shook hands and determined that forgiveness was appropriate,” the tribe’s chairman, Billie Cypress, wrote in a letter in August to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “The tribe members believe they have handled the issues, Indian to Indian.”
Prosecutors say that because the drowning occurred outside the Miccosukee reservation, the state has the authority and obligation to pursue the case. “This is for a jury to decide,” said Reid Rubin, the lead prosecutor on the case.
Piecing together the case, though, has been a challenge because of the tribe’s aggressive tactics to try to thwart prosecutors’ investigation.
Tribe lawyers obtained a court order blocking prosecutors from entering tribal land to serve witness subpoenas. The tribe also unsuccessfully sought to prevent prosecutors from using Miccosukee Police Department reports in the case, claiming the department and its records were protected by the sovereignty status. It has forbidden officers from cooperating with the state’s investigation and has fired employees who did so, prosecutors say.
Lawyers for Mr. Billie, who has been in jail in Miami since tribe police turned him over to county authorities the day of the drowning, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Tribe officials and their lead attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, also did not return calls. Another tribe lawyer reached briefly, Juan Vargas, said, “The tribe’s position is to decline any interviews at this time.”
The dead boys’ mother, Sheila Tiger, has told prosecutors that she does not want to testify against Mr. Billie. She could not be reached for comment. Prosecutors, who say they believe Ms. Tiger is afraid to act against the tribe’s wishes, detained her when she drove off the reservation last month and held her in a hotel for three days until she gave a videotaped deposition about the night her sons died.
In 1997, Ms. Tiger told tribe police that Mr. Billie had previously threatened to harm the boys, but she later retracted her statement. According to court records and police reports, Mr. Billie has a history of arrests for violence on the reservation, including violence against Ms. Tiger’s mother, who has also declined to talk to prosecutors.
They say they have all but given up on interviewing some tribe members who could tell them what happened that June night. “It is unlikely that we will have everyone at our fingertips that we would like to testify,” Mr. Reid said.
Court records from several criminal cases involving members of the Miccosukee tribe show a pattern of efforts to keep criminal cases out of state courts. And the records and interviews suggest a failure by the tribal police and court to prosecute some of its members for violent and alcohol- or drug-related offenses, or to sentence them to jail.
In a 1998 case, Tammy Gwen Billie, a cousin of Max Billie, the tribal council member, drove off the reservation and smashed head-on into another car, instantly killing a woman. Ms. Billie was released from police custody and is awaiting trial on manslaughter charges. She has testified in court that the crash was an accident. She was later arrested on another driving-related offense.
Lawyers for the tribe, again raising the sovereignty issue, argued that tribe police documents should not be used as evidence in the manslaughter case.
In another case, a former lieutenant with the Miccosukee Police Department said he was fired after suggesting that another member of the tribe be turned over to federal authorities to be charged with assaulting his girlfriend with a knife. “I was subsequently fired the next day,” former Lt. Tom Fucci said in a deposition.
He also testified that many cases “ended up in tribal court and nothing happened,” and argued that many such cases should probably be handled by state or federal authorities.
But, said one of the prosecutors in the Kirk Billie case, tribal members’ rights often collide with society’s quest for justices. “I’m not sure that a lot of times prosecutors don’t get frustrated and just don’t push it,” said Christine Zahralban, an assistant state attorney.
That, she insisted, will not happen in the Kirk Billie case, “because two babies are dead.”
Tribe Seeks Murder Case Jurisdiction
October 24, 2000
By Catherine Wilson, Associated Press Writer
MIAMI (AP) – Florida’s Miccosukee Indians are trying to thwart prosecutors in their attempt to build a case against an Indian accused of murdering his sleeping sons by driving into a canal.
Tribal elders have said they have forgiven 31-year-old Kirk Douglas Billie and have decided to help him.
State prosecutors have charged Billie with murder in the deaths of his two boys, ages 3 and 5, who drowned in 1997 when Billie drove his estranged girlfriend’s vehicle into a canal off the Miccosukee reservation.
But prosecutors have been barred from setting foot on reservation land to serve subpoenas on seven to 10 Miccosukees they want to question for the murder trial, set for Jan. 22.
“It’s fair to say that the case would be complicated and jeopardized without the witnesses,” prosecutor Reid Rubin said.
Billie has been held without bail since 1997. On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Leon Firtel again refused to allow Billie’s release on bail, saying he wants assurances from the Miccosukees that any attempts by the court to make sure Billie shows up for trial are enforced on tribal lands.
Inside the courtroom, Billie sat alone in a jury box. At one point he looked around as if to see if he knew any spectators. No other Indians came to court. Anyone from the reservation involved in the case risked being served with a subpoena if they came.
In arguing for Billie’s release on bail, Billie’s attorney Diane Ward suggested her client is suffering because of the tribe’s position.
Billie, a nephew of a tribal council member, has insisted he did not know the boys were in the Chevrolet Tahoe and said he accidentally veered into the canal.
One of his lawyers, Ed O’Donnell, said the prosecutor’s warnings about the tribal dispute hurting the case are exaggerated.
“There are any number of options open to the state, and they’re aware of them,” he said. For example, subpoenas can be served when Indians leave the reservation to shop for groceries or other personal business.
“There will be a trial. That’s certain,” O’Donnell said.
The Miccosukees are a 600-member tribe with a bingo hall and casino on the edge of Miami.
Tribe Rejects Subpoenas in Murder Inquiry
By Frances Robles, Miami Herald
September 28, 2000
A first-degree murder case is in danger of crumbling because the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians doesn’t want law enforcement authorities serving subpoenas on its reservation.
Saying the drownings of Kurt and Keith Billie have been settled Indian to Indian, the tribe doesn’t want the young boys’ father, Kirk Douglas Billie, to be prosecuted. Tribe leaders say
they shook hands, forgave and declared the drownings an accident.
In a case that could have wide-sweeping implications, the Miami-Dade state attorney, U.S. attorney’s office and the Miccosukee Tribe Business Council have taken the battle to federal and tribal courts. The crux of their legal debate: whether state subpoenas for people who live in a sovereign nation can be served by federal agents.
The tribe wants Billie out of jail and U.S. marshals trying to serve subpoenas off their land.
“The public should be outraged by the government’s attempt to bully the Miccosukee Tribe,” tribe Chairman Billy Cypress said in a statement. “The government tried to use the same tactic it used with Elián González, and it did not work.”
The legal dispute centers around 31-year-old Billie, a man with a documented history of violent run-ins with women and children. According to police records, he hit a wife, a girlfriend, a mother-in-law and a 9-year-old with his fists, a broom and also a bat.
Sheila Tiger, mother of his three children, decided to dump him. On June 26, 1997, prosecutors say Billie left her a note that said, “Don’t think the kids will ever stop me.”
As that night turned into morning, Billie called to say he was coming over. Tiger left with her three kids and started driving around the reservation in her Chevrolet Tahoe to avoid him, court records say.
Tiger stopped at the house of her friend Melody Osceola, leaving her car and kids there. Billie spotted Osceola in the Tahoe and tailed it — the lights on his car off.
Osceola parked and got out with a baby in her arms, leaving the engine running and Keith, 3, and Kurt, 5, asleep in the back seat. Billie reportedly pushed her aside and took off with the truck.
The boys remained strapped to the back when Billie drove it into the 13-foot-deep Tamiami Canal, just outside the reservation. Kurt and Keith drowned in the middle of the night.
The next morning, Billie led police to the Tahoe, claiming he didn’t know his sons were in the back. He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder.
This summer, Cypress sent Miami-Dade prosecutors a five-page letter asking that they drop the case. Saying Indians settle matters “in a different way,” Cypress made it clear that law enforcement authorities trying to serve subpoenas to the nearly dozen Miccosukee witnesses were not welcome.
Because the U.S. attorney’s office has jurisdiction over the reservation, prosecutors tried getting U.S. marshals to serve subpoenas. Miccosukee Police asked them to leave.
Tribe attorney Dexter Lehtinen — the former U.S. attorney here — filed a motion in federal court asking a judge to keep the feds from coming back. Lehtinen filed court motions arguing that the state is trying to skirt Congress by getting federal agents to illegally serve state subpoenas.
“They are making rather sweeping assertions of sovereignty,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Tamen said. “All they need to do next is say they are seceding from the U.S. and are setting up Customs and Border Patrol.
“Our position is that there is sufficient federal interest in seeing this case prosecuted. We believe marshals do have authority to serve state trial subpoenas.”
Indian reservations outside Florida have rules to decide such matters. The Miccosukees do not.
U.S. District Judge Paul Huck asked the two sides to take the matter to Tribal Court, as is done in other reservations. The state plans to file papers there today.
“The tribal elders of the clan are the ones who have to speak on the matter,” Cypress wrote. “And they have spoken.”
Despite State’s Efforts, Tribal Casinos on a Roll
By Paul Brinkley-Rogers and Erika Bolstad
July 9, 2000, Miami Herald
Three times in the last 20 years, Florida voters have said no to casino gambling.
Despite the state’s best effort to keep gambling out, gaming on the state’s Indian reservations is on a roll, with more and more casinos attracting swarms of customers willing to bet a buck, and then some.
This past week’s news that the Seminoles are planning a $300 million complex on reservation land in Hollywood is only the latest example of an industry that has grown into a multimillion dollar business statewide. Indian-run casinos are located on Krome Avenue in Miami-Dade County, and at Hollywood and Coconut Creek in Broward County. Others are in Brighton (near Lake Okeechobee), Tampa and Immokalee.
Such gaming enterprises are illegal, contends Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who has watched powerlessly as courts continue to rebuff Florida’s efforts to regulate the rapidly expanding industry. The state has been unable to sign an agreement, or compact, with the Seminoles, or with the Miccosukees, who operate the massive casino and hotel along Krome Avenue in Miami-Dade.
Federal law urges such agreements, but allows the tribes to go ahead with casino development if one cannot be reached. And that, Butterworth says, is the problem.
Federal law is unclear when it comes to stating what can happen on reservation land. So, “if it is unclear, then you rule for the Indians,” Butterworth said.
It appeared that way when a judge ruled against his attempt as Broward sheriff in 1979 to shut down the new, and now hugely popular, Seminole bingo hall in Hollywood.
And it appeared that way last year when a federal appeals court rejected Florida’s claim that high-stakes tribal-run gaming without a compact with the state is illegal.
“I would not be doing my job if I did not use my authority” to try to shut it down, Butterworth said.
Still, his hard-line position has not stopped aggressive moves by the Seminoles to snag their share of South Florida’s tourist dollar by offering slots and blackjack.
The 2,500-member tribe’s decision to add a gaming resort to the existing bingo casino on the Hollywood reservation is the latest in a string of successful business ventures.
Also in the wings, according to the Tribal Council, is a $2-million revamping of the Seminole-owned Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Tampa in time for the 2001 Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium, coupled with an upgrading of the Tampa Seminole Gaming Palace and a decision by the tribe to run the facilities by itself.
The tribe also has paid $1.9 million for more than 125 acres of vacant land 15 miles east of Walt Disney World near Orlando, according to Osceola County officials, who wonder if the tribe plans to expand its empire again.
Mom and pop gamblers who flock in droves to the casinos have made the once-impoverished tribe relatively rich. In 1997, according to a Seminole publication, Hollywood bingo earned the tribe $87 million on revenues of $143 million.
The amount of cash gamblers drop at slots and blackjack enable the tribes to send checks amounting to thousands of dollars every year to each enrolled member and to grant college scholarships to almost any young Seminole who wants one. It also has fueled a rapid expansion of the tribal infrastructure. New tribal government buildings, libraries, clinics — even a Seminole-owned aircraft factory in Fort Pierce.
Exact accounting of casino revenues is known only to tribal officials, and to the federal government’s Indian Gaming Commission, which gets a look at annual audits and sends agents into casinos to look at how they are run. Private estimates put the annual Seminole take at more than $200 million.
Tribal authorities were not available for comment. But at a June 7 council meeting, Chairman James Billie was quoted in a tribal newspaper as saying, “We are taking control of our gaming facilities so that all revenues generated go directly to the Seminole people.
“There are many political hurdles to overcome,” said Billie, who became tribal leader immediately before the Hollywood bingo hall opened in 1979, and who has been the architect of casino expansion. “But that is nothing new to me personally, or to the Seminole Tribe.”
The Hollywood resort would take up the busy northwest corner of U.S. 441 and Stirling Road, now home to a jumble of churches, the Seminole fairgrounds, discount cigarette outlets, a mobile home park, pawn shops and used-car dealerships.
“A $300 million resort right in the heart of eastern Broward” is a huge project, Butterworth said. It will have major impact on county life, especially for owners of dog tracks, jai alai frontons and horse racing who could see their parimutuel take shrink.
Broward probably will be receptive, he said. It was the only county in the state where voters agreed to favor a Class 3 gaming proposition — including slot machines and card games — six years ago. The ballot measure was defeated statewide.
The Indian Gaming Commission oversees 309 casinos operated by tribes in 28 states. Its task is to curb corruption, ensure that Indian tribes are the primary beneficiaries of revenues, and assure that gaming is conducted honestly by both operators and players, said Kyle Nayback, director of Congressional Public Affairs.
The commission requires an annual independent audit of gambling enterprises. It has the authority to investigate any irregularities at the casinos. One of its duties is to approve contracts with independent management companies.
Florida’s tribes neatly sidestep that requirement by calling such contractors “consultants,” and by managing casinos themselves, said Mike Burnstein, a lawyer on Butterworth’s staff.
“The situation in Florida is unique,” Nayback said. “The tribes and the state have been at odds over what the scope of gaming should be in the state.’
When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt proposed regulations last year that would have allowed the Interior Department to be an arbiter of gambling disputes between the state and tribal organizations, Butterworth sued in federal court.
The state said the rules would give the interior secretary a “blank check” to make his own laws on Indian gambling. That legal action is still pending.
Because the issue is unresolved, the Indian Gaming Commission has taken a hands-off approach.
The commission “does not have the authority to determine the scope of gambling in the state of Florida,” Nayback said. Its policy has “consistently been to allow (that type of gambling) to proceed without federal intervention.”