Interior Department OKs expanded gambling at Seminole casinos

Jan 3, 2008

South Florida

By Michael Turnbell and Jon Burstein

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

January 3, 2008

The U.S. Department of the Interior has approved the gambling compact between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe that would allow blackjack, baccarat and Las Vegas-style slot machines at the tribe’s seven Florida casinos.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill McCollum said Wednesday he will move quickly this week to get a federal judge to hold a hearing on a lawsuit filed last month to stop the agreement from going into effect until the Florida Supreme Court can decide whether it is legal.

The compact has to be published in the Federal Register to take effect. The earliest that could happen is Monday, said Sandi Copes, McCollum’s spokeswoman.

"We’re right now exploring our options to best expedite our lawsuit," Copes said.

Crist and the tribal council signed the compact in November.

In exchange for the state allowing expanded gambling at the tribe’s seven casinos, Florida would collect $375 million over the first three years and a minimum of $100 million annually for the rest of the 25-year deal.

But many state leaders have criticized the agreement, some claiming the state wouldn’t get enough money. Others said Crist overstepped his authority.

Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for Crist, said the governor was aware that the Department of the Interior approved the compact on Monday. "The governor hasn’t made any further comments beyond that," she said.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, has contended that Crist was too lenient in granting the tribe permission to offer the expanded gambling and questioned the legality of authorizing games such as blackjack and baccarat that are illegal in Florida.

Legislative leaders have asked the Florida Supreme Court to invalidate the compact, arguing that Crist should have sought their approval. The Supreme Court plans a hearing on the case Jan. 30.

Barry Richard, one of the Seminole Tribe’s attorneys, said the Department of the Interior had 45 days from the Nov. 14 signing of the compact to raise objections. He said Wednesday night that he didn’t know whether the Interior Department formally approved the compact or let the 45-day window lapse without taking any action.

From the federal government’s standpoint, publication in the Federal Register is the last step for the compact to take effect.

The tribe has given no indication how quickly it could start offering expanded gambling if the legal challenges are resolved in its favor.

Michael Turnbell can be reached at, 954-356-4155 or 561-243-6550.

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