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 last week 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 this week, 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. "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.
US rejects Indian casinos in Catskills
The federal government has turned down plans for two "off-reservation" Indian casinos in the Catskills, saying the gambling sites aimed at drawing high rollers from New York City might leave their faraway tribes worse off.
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe had sought to build a $600 million casino in Monticello in Sullivan County, about 90 miles from New York City. The Stockbridge Munsee of Wisconsin had also sought to build a casino in Sullivan County. Both were rejected in separate letters sent late Friday to tribal leaders by Department of Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason.
Both applications center around the hotly disputed question of whether tribes should be allowed to establish casinos far away from their reservations. The St. Regis Mohawk tribe is located about 350 miles north of its proposed site. The Stockbridge Munsee are more than 1,000 miles away.
"The remote location of the proposed gaming facility may encourage reservation residents to leave the reservation for an extended period to take advantage of the job opportunities created," Cason wrote in identical language to the two tribes. "The potential departure of a significant number of reservation residents and their families could have serious and far-reaching implications for the remaining tribal community and its continuity as a community."
The decision was quickly criticized by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, a lawmaker who has strongly supported the casino plans.
Hinchey and the St. Regis tribe have long maintained that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has not fairly considered the proposal. The St. Regis tribe filed a lawsuit late last year accusing Kempthorne of stalling the approval process.