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Seminole Tribe sues state over blackjack

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The Seminole Tribe of Florida now is asking a federal judge to let it keep blackjack at its casinos across the state.

Florida and the tribe signed a deal in 2010 but the provision that allows blackjack and other banked card games expires at the end of this month.

The tribe is supposed to remove its blackjack tables by then. The tribe and the state have been in mediation.

On Monday, however, the tribe filed a federal lawsuit against the state in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.

The lawsuit contends Seminole casinos can keep the games in place because Florida regulators violated the compact with the tribe by allowing South Florida race tracks to offer electronic versions of card games.

Blackjack is big money for the tribe and for the state: In return for rights to offer the card game, the tribe had to guarantee a $1 billion minimum payment into the state treasury over five years, starting in 2010-11.

The tribe’s chairman in a statement said “significant progress” has been made between state officials and the Seminoles to extend the current deal.

But Chairman James Billie said the lawsuit was filed to protect the tribe’s interests.

Here’s his statement in full:

“Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman James E. Billie is pleased to report significant progress in the Tribe’s negotiations with the Governor and leaders of the Florida Legislature relative to finalizing a new Compact agreement, and the Tribe remains hopeful that a positive outcome will result.  The Tribe believes that a legislative solution would be in the best interest of the State and the Tribe.  Nevertheless, the Tribe today filed suit, according to the remedies spelled out in the Seminole Compact and the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The Tribe has no option but to file in order to protect its interests and those of the 3,100 employees and their families whose jobs are in jeopardy.  It is following the procedure set forth in the Compact for dispute resolution and is seeking a declaratory opinion from the court with respect to the proper interpretation of the Compact and the law.”

Representatives of the tribe also met with Gov. Rick Scott and his staff in secret earlier this month.

Seminoles spokesman Gary Bitner did not comment on those meetings other than to say the meetings were “part of the ongoing negotiations between the Tribe and the State.”

The blackjack provision is in a larger document known as the Seminole Compact. That provision expires earlier than the rest of the agreement, setting up a possible conflict at the beginning of November, when the tribe’s permission to deal cards ends.

The Seminoles want to keep card games at seven of their casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

But, if there’s no new agreement in place, the state can go to federal court and ask a judge to enforce the compact. That means ordering the Seminoles to take down the card tables. writer Jim Rosica contributed to this report. 

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