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Seminole gambling
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Seminole gambling

Jim Clare leaves mansion
Jim Clare, who had no casino management experience before hooking up with the Seminoles, leaves his $870,000 mansion on TampaÕs Bayshore Boulevard. (Times photo: MIKE PEASE)

Loyalty pays off for Tampa partner

The tribe has maintained a 15-year relationship with Jim Clare and his management company through questionable investments and a bingo scam.

By JEFF TESTERMAN and BRAD GOLDSTEIN

Times Staff Writers


Jim Clare had already made a fortune as the Seminole Indians' gambling partner in Tampa when he approached the tribe three years ago with a new idea.

Gambling ships.

One of Clare's companies would run the gambling operations. Cruise lines would operate the ships. The tribe could invest in both.

A major part of the investment was put into a former French ferry that was re-christened the Seminole Express. The vessel was supposed to start operating between St. Petersburg and Cancun, Mexico, a year ago. It has never left its St. Petersburg dock and is stuck in a legal quagmire.

The Seminoles have little to show so far for an investment estimated by Jim Talik, the tribe's former business manager, to be $6-million. Talik told the Times that tribal officials fired him because he had initiated some scrutiny of the deal and they "feared exposure of a major coverup that the tribe had been swindled out of over $6-million."

Seminole comptroller Ted Boyd says the gambling-ship deal is being renegotiated and he is confident the tribe will make money.

Seminole Chairman James Billie, too, continues to stick by Clare and his casino management company, Pan American & Associates. The company's principals have much to show for Billie's loyalty. In 1996-97, Pan American was paid an estimated $26-million for managing the Seminoles' casinos in Tampa and Immokalee.

Pan American has returned Billie's loyalty. In 1992, Clare loaned Billie the money he needed to buy a $70,000 Collier County property. Pan American's general counsel, Buddy J. Levy, provided free legal services to Billie in connection with Micco Enterprises, a tobacco shop Billie operates on the Miccosukee reservation. Levy said he provides "a lot of pro bono work" for the tribe.

"Primarily, because we've been with them so long, we've developed a confidence level," Levy said.

Clare and his partners, Donald Valverde and Alfred Estrada, had no casino management experience before hooking up with the Seminoles. They held management positions at Occidental Petroleum and Beker Industries, a fertilizer producer.

In early 1980, the three men were collaborating with the tribe on a project to produce gasohol when workers building the Fort Brooke city parking garage in downtown Tampa uncovered the graves of 140 Seminoles buried in the 1830s.

Billie, who had just been elected chairman of the Seminole tribe, wanted to build a museum where the bones could be re-interred. After finding 81/2 acres of land north of Orient Road along Interstate 4, the tribe turned to Pan American for help. The company bought the land for $185,000 and gave it to the tribe. In return, Pan American got a contract to manage any businesses that went there.

In 1982, the Seminole Bingo Hall with super jackpots opened on the 81/2-acre site. It was an instant success.

Pan American soon looked elsewhere for more gambling deals. But ventures with tribes in California, Arizona, Minnesota and Washington were all short-lived. The Pascua Yaqui tribe of Arizona grew so disenchanted with Pan American's management that tribal members surrounded the bingo hall and demanded that its managers give up control.

Pan American's relationship with the Seminoles has survived for 15 years. It survived a 1990 report by the U.S. Inspector General's Office that concluded the casino was "susceptible to fraud due to lack of any system of checks and balances between the management firms and the tribe." And it survived a bingo scandal a year later that cost the tribe tens of thousands of dollars.

Three employees at the Tampa hall conspired with a group of hard-core bingo players to fix games and take the casino for more than $288,000. The scam began to unravel when casino regular Brian J. Peterson and friend Patrick O'Leary were lured into the scheme and shared a $20,000 jackpot. Peterson and O'Leary later had misgivings and secretly videotaped casino employees splitting jackpots and discussing the fix.

The two then went to Clare. O'Leary said that Clare and Levy, the general counsel, "did not come across as being shocked when we told them their managers were ripping them off. They just wanted our tapes so bad."

property
The property off I-4 in Tampa of the Seminole Tribe of Florida includes the gaming palace, businesses such as a smoke shop and gift shop, the Sheraton Hotel and Indian housing. (Times photo: MIKE PEASE)

Instead, Peterson and O'Leary gave the tapes to investigators. Eight people were convicted and fined or sent to prison, including three employees: hall general manager Alvio Riveiro, his son Alvio Riveiro Jr. and floor clerk Anthony J. Piazza.

Vasilios Tsioris, a bingo patron, later filed a lawsuit over the scam, alleging that he had been defrauded. In a deposition taken in the suit, Peterson said floor clerk Piazza suggested Clare knew about the bingo-fixing scheme. Piazza said there were "many hands in the pot," Peterson testified. When asked specifically about Clare, Piazza said, "He's been taken care of. He's nothing but a puss," according to Peterson.

Clare has vehemently denied knowing anything about the bingo-fixing, and a judge dismissed the lawsuit.

To avoid fraud, many casinos use an independent security firm to monitor operations. From 1991 until 1994, a company called Knox Security handled security matters at the Tampa casino. It may have looked like an independent company, but it wasn't, according to Roy Knox, the security guard who was listed as the company's director. Knox told the Times that casino bosses bankrolled Knox Security, pouring almost $500,000 into it.

"It was all Jim Clare," said Knox, who now is retired and living in a mobile home in Gibsonton. "I had nothing to put into it."

Knox said Clare set him up in the security company because, "Clare said he didn't want outside security coming in here."

Clare's only brush with the law came in 1962, when he was a 21-year-old substitute letter carrier in Houston. According to court records, he took $90 in cash from an envelope addressed to a society for the crippled. The indictment was dismissed a year later.

On state applications for liquor licenses at Seminole casinos, Clare has not disclosed the arrest, as is required.

"I did something when I was a kid, you know, 21 years old," Clare told the Times. "I thought it was wiped out so I erased it from my life. It was an embarrassing situation, stupid."

* * *

Pan American has influential supporters in Tampa.

Bob Martinez, former mayor of Tampa and governor of Florida, acted as a liaison for Pan American in 1995 when the company financed a venture to establish a casino and nightclub in Lima, Peru.

Current Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who received $4,000 in campaign contributions from Pan American and its associates, supports moving the Seminole gambling hall downtown if Florida legalizes high-stakes casino gambling.

"These are some of the nicest people you'll ever know," Greco told a business group at a chamber of commerce breakfast at the Tampa casino earlier this year. "It's a real asset to the community."  

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