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Seminole Tribe: Judge’s slots ruling could cost state ‘multi-billions of dollars’

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If it looks like a slot machine, and plays like a slot machine, it’s a slot machine, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is telling state leaders. 

An order by a Tallahassee judge, first reported by FloridaPolitics.com, declared that certain slot machine-style entertainment devices aren’t slot machines under state law.

The Tribe disagreed. It now says those games violate a deal between the Tribe and the state, known as the Seminole Compact. That could have “massive consequences costing the Tribe and the State to lose multi-billions of dollars,” according to the Tribe’s recent court filing.  

In a letter sent last Wednesday to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Tribal Chairman Marcellus Osceola said the games were “an expansion of gaming” and a “serious violation” of the compact, which guarantees the Tribe exclusive rights to slots outside of South Florida.

If so, that would entitle the Tribe to stop paying the state a cut of its gambling revenue. So far this year, the Seminoles have paid $40 million for January and February – despite a federal judge’s ruling that the state broke another part of the deal governing blackjack exclusivity. That decision is under appeal.

Negron last week said he wanted to use the Seminoles’ money – expected to total $306 million this year – for the 2017-18 state budget. Moreover, his chamber’s gambling legislation, which includes a renewed blackjack deal, will be on the floor starting this Wednesday.

“The letter is the subject of pending litigation, (and) for that reason, President Negron does not have a comment at this time,” spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email. A Scott spokeswoman said she would “look into it” and did not immediately comment.

Osceola wrote that the “Tribe is advised that a significant number of these games are being operated in Florida based on this decision, and that thousands of additional games are likely to be added in the near future.” Gary Bitner, Tribe spokesman, said there would be no further comment.

Earlier this month, Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that a specific kind of game, usually called a “pre-reveal” game, was “not an illegal slot machine or gambling device.” Other states, such as North Carolina, have found pre-reveal games to be illegal gambling, however.

The court action began when agents from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) found one of the games in a Jacksonville sports bar and at least one other location, records show. The games have since been found across the northeast corner of the state.

Players must “press a ‘preview’ button before a play button can be activated,” the judge’s order explained. The outcome of the next game is always known, thus it’s not a game of skill or chance, he said. 

Two days after Osceola’s letter, the Tribe’s lawyer asked the judge to reconsider his decision, court records show. That request piggybacked on one filed by the DBPR, which regulates gambling.

Its filing says “what the player does or does not know about any given outcome is irrelevant … machines which are set to play themselves and record a certain win/loss ratio are inherently infused with chance.”

Attorney Barry Richard, who represents the Tribe, wrote in his filing: “The degree of slot machine exclusivity was an essential element of the Compact in order to obtain federal approval. In the event of an infringement on the Tribe’s exclusivity, the Tribe has the right under the compact to discontinue payments to the State.

“The offering of (pre-reveal games) and any similar gaming system to the public is an infringement on the Tribe’s right to exclusivity under the Compact and threatens to disrupt a contractual relationship between the Tribe and the State that has been highly beneficial to both parties,” he added.

Osceola, in his letter, also said: “The Tribe trusts that the State will take prompt action to remedy this violation.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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