Gamblin' Men

Big-ticket casino deals plus a messy internal power struggle equals even more legal woes for the Seminole tribe

Fears also sidestepped the background checks required by the Illinois Gaming Board in order get into riverboat gambling, according to an investigation by the Sun-Times. Fears led an investment group called the Alton Riverboat Gaming Co, which applied for a license in July 1990. The group included Fears' son, Victor, and about a dozen other stockholders. In November 1990, fearing that financial problems with his restaurants would interfere with the impending background investigation, the elder Fears sold his 8.3 percent interest to a business partner, who in turn gave Gary and Victor Fears an option to buy the stock back. In 1994, Gary Fears signed over all the options to his son, who sold them for about $4 million.

Billie claimed that Fears' gift of an aircraft didn't influence him or the tribe; still, the two men began negotiating a deal for a casino in Coconut Creek. That didn't sit well with Tiller, however, who eventually sued Fears and several other parties for destroying his relationship with the Seminole Tribe. According to Tiller's Broward County Circuit Court complaint, in 1994 he had "learned of a valuable business opportunity to expand gaming activities at... a new facility in Coconut Creek." That same year, he met Fears, who said he owned Argosy Gaming Co. Fears proposed that together they could find additional financing and buy out the existing management contract at the Hollywood casino and introduce Class III gaming, which is high-stakes Vegas-style gambling, the complaint states. Tiller claims Fears used him for entrée to Billie and the council, "who were notoriously distrustful of Anglo-American businessmen because they had broken their promises in the past and skimmed millions of dollars from the casinos in Hollywood and Tampa."

The Hollywood buyout didn't happen. Instead, Fears began negotiating with the tribe in 1995 to develop a casino in Coconut Creek. In March 1995, Tiller introduced Fears to George Straub, who had controlling interest in Straub Capital Corp. Tiller alleges that in the fall of 1995, Straub and Fears conspired to oust him. Billie continued to support his involvement, Tiller claims, until a St. Petersburg Times article in July 1997 depicted him as disparaging the tribe and chief. The tribe "cut all social and business ties" with him, he claimed. The court dismissed the complaint in October 2002, citing the lack of an actual business agreement between Tiller and the tribe. Tiller's appeal to the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach is pending.

Michael Austin
Michael Austin

Regardless of what his relationship had been with Tiller, Fears pressed on, only to hit his own roadblocks with Coconut Creek city officials, who were wary of his background. Coconut Creek Casino was ultimately built by Coconut Creek Gaming, a limited partnership. Its general partner is North American Sports Management IX Inc. (NORAM), which is based in Maitland, Florida. Alan H. Ginsburg, NORAM's president, has casino development deals with tribes in five states, according to a December 2002 Time magazine investigation of Indian gaming. Fears is apparently still involved, however. The St. Petersburg Times reported in July 2001 that Fears had admitted in a lawsuit deposition to being "the largest and probably majority" shareholder in the partnership.

The deal between the Seminoles and the partnership was structured so that the latter would build the casino, supply it with gaming equipment, and fund startup costs. The tribe, which would operate the casino, would then pay back all those costs, including interest. In addition, the tribe would pay the partnership 35 percent of the net revenues for the next ten years, which by 2002 was about $2 million a month. About 800 slot machines fill the 30,000-square-foot casino.

According to Craig Rasile, a Miami attorney who represents Coconut Creek Gaming, the tribe had already paid back the upfront costs by the summer of 2002. But then, inexplicably, the tribe failed to make the $1.79 million payment due in June. The tribe had waived its sovereign immunity for the deal, which meant that the partnership had the ability to file a lawsuit in court against the tribe. The waiver, however, had stipulated that in the event of a dispute, the company would first need to meet with tribal officials before filing a lawsuit, Rasile says. The partnership wrote to the tribe three times in August requesting a conference but received no response.

The company filed suit against the Seminole Tribe in Broward Circuit Court on October 11, 2002. At the same time, the partnership requested that the court appoint a custodian to make sure the casino accounts were not commingled with other funds. In supporting its case for a custodian, the company alleged in court papers that Billie's ouster as chairman created a void in tribal leadership "resulting in disarray and a lack of control over tribal affairs." The motion also cites Treasurer Priscilla Sayen's deposition as an indication of the "state of disarray" in the tribe's cash management policies.

The tribe's attorneys maintain that Billie made changes to the contract that did not receive the required sign-off from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC). As a result, they assert, the contract is void.

Cox dismisses the tribe's defense of its actions. "I didn't particularly agree with the NORAM deal, even when I was with the tribe," he says. "But keep in mind that despite the fact that these guys say this contract was done by James Billie and they didn't know about, it is a valid contract that was approved by the council, which at that time was the [Seminole] Gaming Commission. They knew it from the get-go. The current chair, Max Osceola, negotiated the deal. It was in the works for six years. The contracts were forwarded to the NIGC, forwarded to the BIA."

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