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Seminole gambling

Seminole casinos are now limited to games like high-stakes bingo, video slot machines and poker, such as this action in Tampa. (Times photo: MIKE PEASE)

Banking on full-scale casinos


Times Staff Writers

The Seminole Indians have a simple, two-part strategy for the future of their gambling business.

First, hang on to current gambling profits. Then, make more.

In the near-term, that strategy means using political or legal means to gain an official stamp of approval for the tribe's video slot machines, which account for about 70 percent of gambling revenues. The U.S. government says the machines are illegal and federal prosecutors have asked a judge to order them removed.

James Billie
Chairman James Billie thinks full casinos would increase profits almost five-fold for the tribe. (Times photo: MIKE PEASE)
Over the longer term, the Seminole strategy means pursuing something Florida voters have rejected three times -- Las Vegas-style casinos. Seminole Chairman James Billie thinks full casinos would give the tribe profits of $500-million a year.

The Seminoles would locate full casinos on existing tribal lands in Hillsborough, Broward, Glades and Collier counties, and plan to acquire land for additional casinos in Orlando, Jacksonville and Miami, according to a tribal resolution.

The plan would put blackjack and roulette on reservation land, boost the number of slot machines and add off-track parimutuel wagering. Seminole casinos are now limited to high-stakes bingo, video slot machines, poker and pull-tabs.

The state's parimutuel interests don't like it. Horse tracks, greyhound tracks and jai alai frontons pay nearly $100-million a year in state taxes and are heavily regulated. The Seminoles pay no taxes on casino profits and are lightly regulated by state and federal government.

Gov. Lawton Chiles has steadfastly opposed a state compact with the Seminoles that would open the door to full casino gambling. Chiles' term ends in a year, however, so a Seminole request for that kind of compact involving tax payments to the state would be heard by his successor. The Legislature also would have to approve such an agreement.

The four announced gubernatorial candidates --Republican Jeb Bush and Democrats Buddy Mackay, Rick Dantzler and Keith Arnold -- all say they share Chiles' opposition to any expansion of gambling in Florida.

But The tribe and its business partners intend to lobby the candidates anyway.

"We want to get the ear of the gubernatorial candidates" to discuss a compact, said Buddy Levy, general counsel for Pan American & Associates, which manages the Seminoles' Tampa casino. "When people want contributions, they're more willing to listen to you."

Billie leaves no doubt about his intentions.

"I will pursue it," Billie told the Times. "I'll go to all the new people that's gonna run for governor and put my 2 cents in and ask."

Meanwhile, the tribe is fighting to hang on to its video slot machines.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the Seminoles from suing Florida to force it to approve the machines. That ruling was followed in June by U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson filing papers in U.S. District Court in Tampa alleging the machines are illegal and asking a judge to remove them.

Tribal lawyers argue that Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt could write rules allowing the Seminoles to keep the slot machines.

What might Floridians expect if Seminole gambling expansion plans proceed? One answer comes from John Kelly, city manager of Coconut Creek, a town of 35,000 in northern Broward County where the tribe plans a $34-million bingo hall.

City commissioners, concerned about allegations of organized crime in Indian casinos, have been unable to find out who the investors are in the Coconut Creek venture.

Some original investors dropped out of the deal because they could not pass background checks, the tribe says, and it refers questions about the current investors to tribal attorney Jim Shore. Shore says he does not know who the investors are.

The tribe got the 4.8-acre Coconut Creek site in 1982 in exchange for reservation land needed to extend the Florida Turnpike.

Kelly said city commissioners are perplexed by the secrecy surrounding the investors.

He said city commissioners also feel annoyed that they have been unable to reach any agreement with the tribe that would protect gambling patrons. The commission isn't even sure the tribe will abide by local zoning laws when the grocery store-sized bingo hall goes up in Coconut Creek.

"Our commissioners are fed up," Kelly said.

The tribe's headquarters are in this building in Hollywood. (Times photo: MIKE PEASE)


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