Court upholds gambling fine
By JEFF TESTERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001
A federal appeals court has upheld a $3.4-million fine against a company that operated the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Hollywood casino.
The company operated the facility without the approval of the federal agency that regulates gambling on American Indian reservations.
The fine is the largest ever levied by the National Indian Gaming Commission.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said JPW Consultants' unauthorized operation of the casino "threatened the (gaming commission's) ability to achieve its goals of shielding the tribe from organized crime and ensuring the tribe is the primary beneficiary of the gaming operation."
This is the second time a tribal contract with a casino management company has run afoul of federal law. The court decision comes amid a federal investigation of the Seminole tribe's gambling operations.
Part of that investigation involves James P. "Skip" Weisman, a principal in JPW Consultants who helped the Seminoles open the first Indian casino in the United States, the Hollywood Bingo Hall.
The gaming commission has ousted Weisman from the Hollywood facility, but he remains a partner with the Seminoles in a casino on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. That facility also has drawn the attention of federal investigators.
Last year, the FBI subpoenaed files in a civil suit filed against the company that Weisman once ran at the Hollywood casino.
Files from that suit include a deposition by an employee who said Weisman packed cash into cardboard boxes and shipped them to St. Maarten. Weisman insisted he was merely shipping janitorial and office supplies to the island.
The FBI was interested in tracking where the money was flowing from the casino, said Marc Sarnoff, the Coconut Grove lawyer whose files were subpoenaed.
A former top official with the Seminoles' own police department said his investigators learned that "some of Weisman's associates were organized crime figures."
Vince Akins, a former Seminole police lieutenant who is now a fraud investigator with the Florida Insurance Department, said Seminole Chief James Billie fired those investigators after they shared their concerns with the gaming commission.
"We felt we were doing what was right and appropriate," said Akins, "but we lost our jobs because we went to the NIGC."
The gaming commission's record fine against JPW Consultants is based on a management contract the tribe signed with Weisman after investors in his other company, Seminole Management Associates, failed background checks.
The tribe spent $60-million to buy out that contract, then hired Weisman's new company in 1996. But the contract was not presented to the gaming commission for nearly a year, resulting in the $3.4-million fine.
Court records show Weisman was paid about $9-million for his work for the tribe in 1996-97.
In 1998, JPW Consultants sued in federal court to overturn the fine, but a judge sided with the NIGC. On April 12, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision.
Henry Latimer, the attorney for JPW, said an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is being considered.
Last year, the NIGC fined the tribe $3-million for failing to get the NIGC's approval of a management contract at its Immokalee casino in Collier County.
The 2,800-member Seminole Tribe also operates gambling halls in Tampa, Brighton and Coconut Creek, and derives most of its income from high-stakes bingo, small-stakes poker and video slot machines.
Tribal officials are in talks to gain authority to offer full Las Vegas-style casino gambling on reservation lands, a move opposed by Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth and Gov. Jeb Bush.
- Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422.
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