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Seminole Tribe’s lawyer now watching court cases after Compact’s demise

With a proposed $3 billion gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida having died this past legislative session, the tribe’s lawyer on Tuesday said its fight to keep blackjack in tribal casinos now moves to a federal court.

Barry Richard, a Greenberg Traurig shareholder based in Tallahassee, is representing the tribe in a case against the state.

That suit says the state violated a previous promise of blackjack exclusivity by allowing card games known as player-designated games, like player-banked poker. The tribe offers blackjack at several casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

In a separate federal suit, the state alleged that the tribe’s ongoing offering of blackjack is technically unauthorized because one part of a previous agreement expired and Seminole blackjack now is illegal gambling.

“The tribe’s position is, we’re entitled to continue with the card games,” Richard said. “We’ll see what happens. I think we have a good case.”

The previous blackjack deal was worth at least $1 billion over five years to the state treasury, though payments usually exceeded $200 million per year. Revenue from the tribe stops without a new deal.

“But the tribe likes the deal we made,” he added. “We want to have a good relationship with the state and we’re still prepared to make that deal. But we’re not prepared to make it … by allowing any county that passed a referendum to have slots. That kills the deal because it’s not economically feasible for the tribe.”

Gov. Rick Scott had negotiated a new agreement, known as the Seminole Compact, worth $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state. It also contained key provisions that critics said would expand gambling in Florida, such as allowing the Tribe to offer craps and roulette.

The deal needed approval first by legislators, then by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Indian gambling regulators.

But during the 2016 Legislative Session, lawmakers trying to appease pari-mutuel interests, such as horse and dog tracks, added on even more measures to expand gambling, including additional slot machines and table games. That move ensured its death among legislators wary of seeming too friendly with gambling interests and those just opposed to gambling.

One of those measures, expanding slots to dog and horse tracks, essentially would have pre-empted a case now before the Florida Supreme Court.

It’s set to consider a challenge by a Creek Indian-operated racetrack in Gretna that it and pari-mutuels in five other counties can offer slots because voters approved the machines in local referendums. The tribe views such a move as unfair competition.

Former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief, said slot machines are illegal “lotteries” banned by the state constitution unless expressly permitted by law. “To expand the reach of slot machines, the people of Florida must amend the Constitution,” he said in the brief.

The Gretna track’s lawyers disagreed, referring to the court’s own language in a 2004 decision: “We have long since settled the question … of whether certain legislatively described gambling machines, such as slot machines, constituted lotteries prohibited by the state constitution. We concluded they did not.”

Gary Bitner, the tribe’s spokesman, said in an email that the Seminoles are “waiting to see what happens at the Florida Supreme Court and at federal court in Tallahassee and to see if those outcomes motivate the Legislature to act. In the meantime, the table games will continue.”

Richard laid out three possibilities coming out of the Supreme Court case: The court could nullify previously allowed gambling at pari-mutuels, such as card rooms and slots; it could agree with the Gretna facility and expand slot machines to areas that OK’d them, or it could maintain the gambling status quo statewide.

But leaving the decisions in the hands of judges and justices is, ironically, too much of a gamble for future business that’s worth millions of dollars.

“I suspect the negotiations with the Legislature are not over,” Richard said. “I think they’ll continue regardless of what the courts do … This deal was good for both sides.”

The Legislature’s point men on gambling — state Sen. Rob Bradley and state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz — respectively chair the panels that oversee gambling issues, the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries and the House Regulatory Affairs Committee.

A call to Bradley wasn’t returned Tuesday night. But Diaz said nothing has happened since the March 11 end of session: “Not a peep.”

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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