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    U.S. Interior to review tribal gambling rules

    Federal rules released during the Clinton administration were aimed at expanding gambling on reservations in Florida.

    By JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 26, 2001


    TAMPA -- Under pressure from the Jeb Bush administration, the U.S. Department of Interior has withdrawn federal rules aimed at expanding gambling on reservations of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes of Florida.

    Released Jan. 19, the final day of the Clinton presidency, the Interior rules allowed high-stakes poker, off-track parimutuel betting and certain electronic gambling machines that make millions of dollars for Florida Indians.

    Now, new Interior Secretary Gale Norton wants additional input from the state and the tribes before rewriting those rules.

    Gov. Bush met with Norton shortly after her confirmation and discussed the Indian gambling issue.

    Expanding gambling in Florida "doesn't make any sense given where we think this state stands now," Bush said Wednesday.

    "This ruling of the Clinton administration opened the door, gave a greater potential for gambling to occur. We asked for a review," Bush said. "We are opposed to any expansion of gaming."

    The state and tribes have been at loggerheads over what gambling should be legal on reservation lands for a decade. Both sides view the move by Interior officials to reconsider gambling rules as an opportunity.

    The Seminoles, with casinos in Tampa, Hollywood, Coconut Creek, Brighton and Immokalee, as well as a $400-million plan to build two Hard Rock Cafe hotel-casinos, will continue to seek the right to offer full Las Vegas-style games, including roulette, blackjack and craps.

    "We were not happy with the January decision," Seminole attorney Bruce Rogow said. "We were severely disappointed with how (Interior Secretary) Bruce Babbitt handled it.

    "Now, The door is opened to us again. This gives us the opportunity to show that we're entitled to more."

    Assistant Attorney General John Glogau said he hoped Interior officials would discard the January rules or come back with guidelines that adhere to the state stance that the electronic gambling machines in tribal casinos are illegal.

    "I think the George Bush administration has a different attitude about the amount of deference that should be given to the states in these matters," Glogau said.

    The tribes had sought new gambling rules from the Interior Department to resolve an impasse created by court decisions surrounding the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. The act required tribes to secure a written agreement with the state -- called a compact -- before offering full casino gambling.

    The Seminoles sought a compact beginning in 1991 but were rebuffed by Gov. Lawton Chiles and Gov. Bush. The Seminoles sued, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state enjoys constitutional immunity.

    The special rulemaking by the Interior Department was designed to settle the issue.

    But Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth challenged even that solution with a 1999 federal lawsuit, still pending, that claims the Interior Department lacks authority to promulgate gambling rules.

    Also still pending is a 1998 suit filed in Tampa by federal prosecutors questioning the legality of the Seminoles' video-gambling machines, which take anything from a quarter to a $20 bill and reward winners with a receipt that is then converted to winnings.

    The state says the devices are akin to "one-armed bandits" that fill the lobbies of Las Vegas casinos. Seminole lawyers insist the machines are little different from state lottery machines and thus are a legitimate form of gambling in Florida.

    The Seminole Tribe pioneered Indian gambling in the United States and continues to rely largely on revenues from high-stakes bingo, low-stakes poker, scratch-off games and electronic video games operated at tribal gambling halls. The tribe finances more than 90 percent of its $200-million budget with gambling receipts and pays each of its 2,800 members a monthly dividend of $2,500.

    But Florida voters rejected casino gambling measures in 1978, 1986 and 1994, and state officials have steadfastly opposed tribal attempts to expand gambling -- even when the Seminoles offered to pay the state 45 percent of gambling profits.

    In recent months, the Seminoles have been the focus of a federal investigation into possible corruption involving the tribe and its businesses. With the FBI regularly attending tribal council meetings, the council suspended longtime chairman James E. Billie, fired several top administrators and ordered a special audit of Seminole spending.

    Lawyers for the tribe and the Florida attorney general, however, both doubt that the Interior Department's withdrawal of the January gaming rules is related to the federal investigation.

    - Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

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