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"We couldn't find any conquistador nickels," quips Osceola, the Hollywood reservation's representative to the Seminole tribal council. He inherited disdain for European conquerors from the Native Americans who lived in Florida before it came under Spanish control, who then battled Andrew Jackson's soldiers almost 200 years ago, and who then were forced westward to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. In the 1850s, a few hundred Seminoles split from those being chased out and burrowed into the swamps; those who stayed behind are the ancestors of Florida's Seminoles, who in 1957 wrote a charter that the U.S. government recognized. The tribe was cash-poor until the 1970s, when Chairman Howard Tommie launched tax-free smoke shops. Then in 1979, the Seminoles started the first high-stakes Indian bingo in the country. That withstood court challenges and blossomed into a veritable betting bonanza.
By the mid-1990s, the Seminole had become among the richest gaming tribes in the country. Its members had opened five casinos that were hauling in more than $350 million a year. The tribe opened several other businesses; combined, they pay for clinics, schools, full college scholarships for Seminole children, and a monthly $3,500 dole to each of the tribe's 3,000 members.
"That's the philosophy, and that's the culture of a hunter going out and bringing back food not just for his family but for everyone," Osceola says.
"Oh, yes, thank you," the councilman adds, turning to a couple of technicians come in to tinker with the air-conditioning control on the wall. It is just a shade warm in here.
Osceola's plush office is just one small example of the tribe's current level of conspicuous comfort. The man most responsible for this luxury is James Billie, the alligator-wrestling, jet-joyriding, rock musician chairman who devised the Hard Rock project in May of 2001. During his 22 years of leadership, Billie raised the tribe from being millions of dollars in the red to earning nearly half a billion annually. In the mid-'90s, "[we] decided that, as the leader in the United States in opening casinos, we should have something really fantastic," Billie says.
The tribe broke ground on the Hollywood-reservation Hard Rock in January 2001. About four months later, on May 24, the council suspended the chairman, alleging that he had sexually harassed an employee and surreptitiously diverted $2.77 million of the tribe's money to an Internet gaming company in Belize and another Hard Rock venture in Managua, Nicaragua.
Today, Billie builds chickees for a living and receives no tribal benefits except health care. Still, he speaks well of the tribe and of the Hard Rock deal. "It will bring numerous bucks coming to the tribe," Billie says, before delivering a jibe. "I'm glad [the firm that issued the bonds] hasn't backed out."
Suspending the mercurial chairman hardly ended the weirdness that has followed the Seminole in recent years. In January 2002, the tribe's general counsel, Jim Shore -- who had helped negotiate with Hard Rock -- was shot through a glass door in the back of his Hollywood home. The blind attorney took two to the arm and one to the torso and survived. No arrests were ever made.
Meanwhile, the feds have shown interest in the tribe's lavish spending -- which will increase financial pressure on the Hard Rock to be highly profitable. In June 2002, Billie's right-hand man, Tim Cox, was indicted and charged with embezzlement and money laundering. Though he was cleared, his trial later that year brought to public view the tribal council members' frittering away tens of millions of dollars on luxury cars, stereo equipment, and credit card charges.
Just two months ago, Philip Hogen, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, visited Hollywood to admonish the tribe about the unfettered spending and warn against gaming machines that too much resemble restricted, Class III gaming. A spokeswoman for the NIGC, which can fine or shutter noncompliant casinos, said the tribe promised reform based on those conversations. The Internal Revenue Service continues to investigate the council for unpaid taxes on discretionary spending.
"One of the responsibilities that comes along with having money is learning how to use it," Osceola says. "We've learned from that process." The councilman recalls the site of the new casino when it was little more than a huge retention pond. Kids would bike in on hot, dusty days and go swimming there. "Now if we get hot, we just go over and get in our four-acre pool, with a bar and a mountain with a slide," he says. "We've come a long way, baby."
Tim Cox has in his Plantation home ample mementos of the tribe's first venture with Hard Rock and Cordish Co. -- a developer with experience building entertainment and retail complexes -- in Nicaragua. Along with a PowerPoint presentation on the four-story hotel and boxes of audits and bank records, he has a slender shot glass and a Hard Rock guitar pin inscribed with Managua. Don't look for those in a gift shop any time soon, though, because after that Hard Rock Live opened briefly in 2001, it was buried.
Its failure might be instructive about the future of the Florida ventures. Cox's account of the Nicaraguan deal and analysis of Cordish's ultimate contract on the Hollywood and Tampa Hard Rock properties suggests the tribe's biggest risk may be how much control it relinquished to get the deal done.