Reprinted excerpts from St. Petersburg Times

Seminole Leaders Say the Tribe Will Rein in Extravagant Spending and Make Sure Gaming Devices are Legal

Published February 25, 2004

By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer

The U.S. government has warned the Seminole Tribe of Florida that it will shut down its casinos unless the tribe stops using illegal gaming devices and ceases a free-wheeling spending program that pumped millions into luxury cars and gifts for council members' cronies.

National Indian Gaming Commission chairman Philip N. Hogen issued the dire warning earlier this month in a private meeting with the Seminole Tribe's elected council members in Washington, D.C. Hogen is scheduled to resume talks about compliance with the Seminole governing body this morning at tribal headquarters in Hollywood, Fla.

The council, facing the loss of its economic lifeblood - casinos bring in more than $300-million a year - appears eager to do what Hogen requires.

Profits from the Seminole's casinos in Tampa, Hollywood, Immokalee, Coconut Creek and Brighton finance most of a tribal budget that exceeds $300-million a year and allows the payment of a $42,000-a-year dividend to every man, woman and child in the 3,000-member tribe.

Spending excesses from those multimillion-dollar handouts made headlines in 2002 during a federal conspiracy, embezzlement and money laundering trial in Fort Lauderdale involving three former employees of the Seminole Tribe.

The tribe has already organized a task force to determine how best to reallocate the money previously handed council members for discretionary spending, said Joel Hirschhorn, a Coral Gables lawyer who represents Seminole Tribal Chairman Mitchell Cypress. Hirschhorn attended a meeting with National Indian Gaming Commission Acting General Counsel Penny J. Coleman and her staff in early February, as Cypress and other Seminole council members were huddling with Hogen.

"What I felt then was that it was a no BS, eyeball-to-eyeball discussion that said, "We've got a problem, and we need to deal with it,"' Hirschhorn recalled.

Hirschhorn said he thinks controversy over discretionary spending developed only after the Seminoles saw their successes in casino gambling "outstrip their ability to deal with it." The sit-down with Hogen helped galvanize a tribal effort to consider financial reform.