The Lawless Seminoles
The Seminole Tribe of Florida has a proud history. Formed from an agglomeration of Indians who fled to northern Florida in the eighteenth century to escape from English-speaking colonists, the tribe fought three wars against the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century and never submitted voluntarily to removal to Western lands.
The current tribe consists of descendants of those tribal members who survived generations of hardscrabble life in the Everglades. Today, though, times are fat for the Seminoles. The Tribe operates six wildly successful casinos, including huge facilities in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida.
Seminole Hard Rock Casino Hotel, Hollywood, FL
The Seminoles recently purchased the Hard Rock company, with its international brand, 5 casinos, 7 hotels, and 124 restaurants, for almost $1 billion, and its gambling businesses return well over $1 billion in annual revenues, tax-free. In recent years, according to one report, the roughly 3200 tribal members have each received an annual distribution in excess of $80,000 from the gambling businesses alone. John Lantigua, Gaming lets Seminoles turn table on poverty; thanks to casinos, the Tribe may be the richest population group in the state, Palm Beach Post, Feb. 4, 2007.
With great wealth, comes power, power beyond the dreams of those brave Seminoles who fought in Florida’s swamps for decades rather than submit. For several months, the Seminoles have been breaking the federal and state laws regulating Indian gambling, yet no arm of either government has had the courage to take them on.
The situation arises from the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which has fostered the meteoric growth of tribal casinos. The Act allows tribes to operate “Class II” gambling on their reservations without any approval by their home state governments. Class II gambling involves bingo and bingo-type games. Ruthlessly exploiting ambiguities in the legal system, tribal casinos and their manufacturing partners have developed Class II “bingo” games that play, look, and feel like slot machines. The National Indian Gaming Commission attempted to impose regulations to stop this flouting of the intent of the statute — which was to allow bingo, not slot machines — but was beaten into submission by the powerful tribal gaming lobbies.
The Seminoles have been restricted to Class II gaming in Florida for many years because Florida’s governors, including Jeb Bush, have refused to sign a Tribal Gaming Compact that would allow the tribe to offer casino games, including blackjack and poker. “Limited” to Class II machines and poker (which is legal in Florida), the Seminoles have become rich. But not rich enough.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist, caving in to the Seminoles
Last spring, Governor Charlie Crist signed a shockingly unfavorable compact with the Seminoles, giving the Tribe the right to offer Class III casino games in return for relatively paltry slice of the action. Even more shocking, the compact allowed the Seminoles to offer casino games (blackjack and chemin-de-fer) that no private company can offer in Florida. This flat violation of Florida and federal law was declared illegal by the Florida Supreme Court over the summer, in a decision that became final in early September.
So, that’s that, right? Time to stop offering Class III games and renegotiate the Compact, right?
Nope. The Tribe continues to offer Class III games in direct violation of Florida and federal law while every public official responsible for enforcing the law — the NIGC, the U.S. Attorney for South Florida, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Attorney General Mukasey, and even Governor Crist — sucks his or her respective thumb. The reason? Rank political cowardice. The Tribe pours millions of dollars into campaign contributions and seems to have purchased immunity from the law.