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Speaker to Feds: Shut Down Seminole Gambling

Saying they have reached an impasse, House Speaker Larry Cretul on Wednesday asked the federal agency regulating Indian gambling to force the Seminole Tribe to shut down blackjack and other card games at its casinos until the state hammers out a compact with the tribe.

In a letter to the National Indian Gaming Commission, Cretul, R-Ocala, said despite the lack of a gambling compact, the tribe continues to offer banked card games at its Immokalee and Tampa casinos even though the games are illegal under state law.

The federal agency, Cretul said, has the right to levy fines up to $25,000 per infraction for violating federal gaming laws and can also shut down the casinos in violation. Cretul said after unsuccessful attempts by state officials to reach a compact with the tribe, it’s time for the federal regulatory agency to exercise its power.

“You also have the authority on behalf of the NIGC to issue orders of temporary closure of gaming activities for substantial violations of the provisions of (the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,) of regulations prescribed by the Commission pursuant to IGRA, or of tribal regulations, ordinances, or resolutions,” Cretul wrote in a letter to acting commission chairman George Skibine. “It is our hope that the NIGC exercises this authority to bring the Tribe into compliance with federal law.”

Meanwhile, the tribe in a statement said federal Indian gaming officials signed off on the tribe’s original compact with Gov. Charlie Crist that was penned in 2007 and therefore it is not in violation of any state or federal law and will continue to offer card games at its casinos. That compact has since been rejected by the Florida Supreme Court, though the court didn’t reject it based on the substance of the agreement, but rather because it said Crist needed legislative approval before signing it.

That’s not the same as rejecting the terms of the agreement, the tribe argues.

“Since the federal approval of the Tribe's 2007 Compact has not been reversed by any judicial or administrative decision, the Compact remains in effect as a matter of federal law,” the tribe said. “The Tribe's gaming facilities continue to operate in full compliance with the 2007 Compact.”

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and lead House negotiator on the issue, told the News Service on Wednesday that the tribe’s decision to use the first compact to justify their card games is inconsistent with their decision to enter into a second round of talks with lawmakers earlier this year.

“The Seminole tribe by its own action has, in essence, agreed that the original compact is not in force,” Galvano said. “It’s a hard argument for them to make now.”

Cretul sought federal intervention as the Legislature wrangles with the tribe over the newest compact, which Crist and the Seminoles signed earlier this year, but many House members argue gives too much to the tribe. While an agreement remains elusive, the Seminoles continue to cash in on card games illegal in non-Indian facilities.

“The Tribe’s ability to profit from these illegal games creates a disincentive to enter into a compact, and places the State at a significant disadvantage in negotiating games to which it never gave its consent,” Cretul said.

The House and Senate spent much of the past year's legislative session trying to hammer out a proposal to be presented to the Seminole Tribe that would allow it to offer banked card games and give the state a cut of the money. The proposal was passed in the final days of the session, and allowed Crist to negotiate the final terms with the tribe, with the understanding that the Legislature would have to ratify the final agreement.

But the deal Crist inked with the tribe went a little bit further than the proposal the Legislature put forward. Under the Crist agreement, the Hard Rock Cafes in Tampa and Hollywood, and the tribal casino in Broward would be allowed to operate banked card games. The proposal also allows the tribe to keep card games that are already being offered at its Immokalee facility and add the games to its Brighton and Big Cypress casinos.

The House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review is scheduled to meet again in two weeks. As it stands, Galvano said the parties are nowhere near close enough to warrant a special session in December for a new compact, and, he said, the existing proposal will not pass.

“We don’t need a special session to reject a compact,” Galvano said.

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