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Seminole gambling
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Seminole gambling

Despite gambling, tribe receives government aid

Casinos were supposed to reduce the Seminoles' dependence on government programs. Yet federal auditors say the tribe squandered taxpayers' money.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
and BRAD GOLDSTEIN

Times Staff Writers


Keith Simmons isn't a Seminole Indian, but his wife is. As a result, his family enjoys some big financial benefits.

Every tribal member gets a monthly dividend derived from the Seminoles' gambling profits. When Simmons was interviewed in April, the monthly dividend stood at $1,000. That meant his wife and three school-age children were getting checks totaling $48,000 a year.

A special report

Day one:Half a billion dollars a year is pouring into the Seminoles' casinos, but some people are profiting much more than others.
Day two: While every Seminole now is getting handsome dividends from gambling revenues, millions in federal aid continue to go to the tribe.
Day three: A profile of Chairman James Billie: "Throw me in a damn ditch and I'll make sure money comes in to the tribe."

That was on top of the income Simmons got as an advertising contractor for the tribe and the money his wife made working at the Seminoles' Tampa casino.

Yet the Simmons family lives in a federally subsidized $68,000 house in the Heather Lakes section of Brandon. Their rent: $300 a month.

The gambling business was meant to reduce the Seminole tribe's dependence on federal aid. Today, Seminole Chairman James Billie says, "Nobody is what you call poverty anymore."

But millions in federal and state aid continue to be sent to the 2,500-member tribe. That aid totaled $39.2-million in 1995, the most recent year for which figures are available. Nearly $12-million came from health grants, another $809,000 for law enforcement, and several million more for water management.

Over the past two decades, the tribe has received more than $29-million in federal housing assistance involving almost 500 homes.

Are taxpayers being ripped off?
electronic
Dorothy Rhinehart of Zephyrhills plays an electronic slot machine at the Tampa casino. Rhinehart said she was a bingo player, not a regular at the slots. Still, electronic games are tops in revenue. (Times photo ?MIKE PEASE)

Housing and Urban Development auditors concluded that the Seminole Housing Authority squandered federal tax money.

The Simmonses' three-bedroom, brick-and-stone house is one of 11 in east Hillsborough that the Seminole Housing Authority has purchased in the past two years so tribal members could move out of cramped town houses next to the Tampa casino.

The Simmonses' rent of $300, Keith Simmons told the Times, was calculated by the housing authority under a formula of $100 a bedroom.

But there is no such formula, according to auditors with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead, a family is required to pay 30 percent of its income in rent. That means a family with a $48,000 annual income should pay about $1,200 a month.

The HUD auditors also found that the Seminole Housing Authority counted only one $1,000-a-month dividend per household when determining eligibility. As a consequence, a number of Seminoles received federal subsidies they didn't deserve. HUD officials aren't sure how many Seminoles benefit from HUD subsidies, but after the audit, they told the tribe to comply with federal rules.

"HUD expects the Seminole Housing Authority to move expeditiously to correct deficiencies," said HUD spokesman Alex Sachs.

In October, Sachs said, the tribe abolished its housing authority, laid off about half its staff and established a new housing department to administer the federal grants. Staffers in the new department estimate that 10 to 15 percent of tribal members still qualify for federal housing, despite a monthly gambling dividend for each tribal member that went from $1,000 to $2,000 in August (and will drop back to $1,500 in January).

Questions also have arisen from the tribe's participation in the federal Head Start program, designed for 3- to 5-year-olds whose parents fall below federal poverty guidelines.

Ann Marie Norce, who headed the tribe's Head Start program for six years, says the way the tribe has obtained Head Start money is "a scandal." Tribal employees inflated the number of children involved in Head Start, Norce said, and continued to seek money even after it was clear the tribe no longer qualified.

Norce said she was fired in 1994 by the Seminole tribe after refusing to sign a $300,000 Head Start application.

"That's why I was terminated," Norce said. "I wouldn't lie . . . They got $300,000 and there weren't any children who were income-eligible."

Chairman Billie told the Times he didn't know about the situation Norce described, and said the tribe is ruthless with people who do anything illegal: "Terminate 'em or something. We're not shy about it."

Norce said she got nowhere when she tried to talk to federal officials about her concerns.

Since 1993, the tribe has received a total of $1.1-million in Head Start money for 78 children. The number of children enrolled in the program did not change for four years, grant applications show. This year that number changed. The tribe received $49,608 in Head Start money for nine children.

Billie said that tribal leaders were aware that increases in the monthly gambling dividend would make more Seminoles ineligible for federal aid, "but sometimes councilmen will make a decision faster than we can stay up on our own investigations . . . or trying to remedy a problem."

Whatever gambling profits come in, Billie also said, the tribe expects to continue collecting federal tax dollars from the U.S. government because of treaty obligations.

"Nobody can really suffer in the Seminole tribe today," Billie said. "I don't give a darn how many billions of dollars or trillions of dollars we have, the government said they're gonna give it, and they're gonna have to do it whether they like it or not."

In 1992, Federal Emergency Management Administration auditors found the tribe had misused aid granted after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida. About $60,000 from the agency went to buy three Chevrolet vehicles for door prizes at a tribal meeting. The money was returned after the diversion was discovered.

The U.S. Senate plans to hold a hearing next year on the issue of federal aid going to tribes with gambling income.  

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