tampabay.com

Once allies, Seminoles and Cordish now at odds

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
Published March 11, 2007


At the 2004 opening of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, developer David Cordish spoke glowingly about the project and his partners, the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

"It's turned out beautifully," he said, "And it's for a wonderful group, the Seminoles."

The glow is long gone. As the Tampa and South Florida casinos began churning out huge profits, the Seminoles engaged in a running battle with Cordish Co. and affiliate, Power Plant Entertainment.

Power Plant sued in December, charging that Hard Rock International executives colluded with the Seminoles to rig bidding for the iconic brand, which the tribe agreed to buy for $965-million.

Hard Rock management persuaded parent Rank Group to cut Power Plant out of auction, the suit alleged, even though Power Plant would have paid a higher price.

Seminole gaming officials said the bidding was aboveboard and took a shot at Cordish's president and chairman. "This is just David Cordish being a sore loser," the tribe said in a statement.

Hard feelings on both sides went way back. Power Plant signed on in 2000 to develop the Seminole Hard Rock hotels and casinos. The tribe agreed to pay 30 percent of net gaming revenues, a deal worth as much as $2.2-billion to Power Plant over 10 years, according to court documents.

It was a rich price. But rounding up financing for a Seminole project at the time was dicey.

FBI agents were investigating Chairman James Billie for corruption and money laundering. The tribe suspended him in 2001. Seminole General Counsel Jim Shore, who assisted the federal investigation, was gunned down in a Mob-style hit at his home in 2002, but survived.

Power Plant secured $410-million in public bond financing and put about $150-million of its money into the projects, the company said in court filings.

A year after the Tampa and Hollywood casinos opened in 2004, the Seminoles tried to buy out Power Plant's contract. Unable to strike a deal, the tribe sued last year, charging the contract gave Power Plant an ownership stake in the casinos in violation of federal laws on Indian gaming.

Attorneys for Power Plant responded that the tribe stood to make $17.5-billion on the contract but wanted their clients' share, too.

"Apparently, $17.5-billion is not enough for the tribe, and its astonishing greed prompted it to file this lawsuit in an effort to deny (Power Plant) the benefit of its bargain," they wrote in response.

Fast Facts:

Seminole gaming history

1979: Seminoles open the nation's first high-stakes bingo on Indian land in Hollywood. Bingo becomes biggest source of tribal income.

1981: U.S. Supreme Court affirms lower-court decision upholding tribe's right to high-stakes bingo. Tampa bingo hall opens.

1988: Congress passes National Indian Gaming Act, giving states a role in deciding what games tribes can offer.

1996: Tribal budget exceeds $100-million.

2004: Seminole Hard Rock Hotels & Casinos open in Tampa and Hollywood.

March 5, 2007: Seminole Tribe closes purchase of Hard Rock International from Rank Group for $965-million.