Seminole Hold 'Em

After nightfall, western Hollywood goes dark and an otherwise featureless horizon comes to be dominated, suddenly, by the Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, the phosphorescent glow of its turrets visible for miles in every direction.

It's around nightfall too that traffic begins to snarl around the main entrance at Seminole Way. Before long, cars are idling to the north, at Lucky Street. Then the quagmire reaches south, to where State Route 441 meets Stirling Road; and before midnight, gridlock arrives at intersections west and east. From the sky, the casino complex glitters gold, all those automobile brake lights gleaming like so many rubies.

The Seminoles have been throwing the same party for so many nights now that none of their guests seem to notice that their Native American hosts have vanished. The guests pay their compliments to the slot machines, buckets of quarters disappearing over blurry hours. Outside, in the neon-lined Seminole Paradise, revelers pay the bouncer a $20 cover or the bartender a ten spot for a vodka and Red Bull.

Even before February 8, when Anna Nicole Smith let loose her dying gasp, the Seminole Hard Rock had established itself as one of those South Florida locations where things happen. Those happenings aren't always good — Anna Nicole's was the most famous but not the only recent case of a mysterious death. And the most intriguing happenings are behind the scenes, where Seminole Tribal Council members meet with hot-shot lawyers and executives to plot the empire's next frontier.

Lately, the news is all good for the Seminole Tribe. In the past six weeks alone, the tribe has settled a nearly billion-dollar lawsuit, closed on the nearly billion-dollar acquisition of Hard Rock International, and announced plans to build the state's largest hotel-casino complex on 44 acres in Coconut Creek.

The casinos occupy as central a role in the tribe's collective economic vitality as the General Motors plant did for the people of Flint, Michigan — though the Seminoles don't actually have to work at their own factory. None of the tribe's 3,300 members need lift a finger except on the one day every month that his or her $7,000 dividend check arrives in the mail — one for every member of the family.

The tribe — certainly among the most prosperous of the nation's 561 recognized Indian tribes — has built an economic juggernaut by exploiting federal policies that gave it advantages over any American corporation. For example, the tribe enjoys an immunity from lawsuits, and its casinos don't have to pay state taxes. Through its status as a sovereign state, it can define civil rights, civil liberties, and the rules of government access as it sees fit.

Since the American government lacks the resources to enforce its laws on Indian land, tribal governments like the Seminoles' are under no particular obligation to adopt policies that don't suit the tribal business.

Gary Anders, an Arizona State economics professor who has written several articles about Indian gaming, speaks of the Seminoles with academic awe: "Think about how we could possibly construct an entity that would have the best possible advantage," he says. "It looks a lot like an Indian tribe with a casino near a major metropolitan market."

But a tribe with a major American corporation in its bulging portfolio must realize that with its colossal success comes the threat of backlash. Recent events suggest the Seminoles have begun to recognize this hazard — but only up to a point. The same generation of Indians who once knew the ravages of poverty must now consider the perils of greed.

The price of image is a hard thing to quantify, but judging by the Freddy Howard episode, it's worth at least $260,000 to the Seminole Tribe.

On August 29, Howard swiped a Player's Club card through the Seminole Hard Rock Casino's "Swipe and Win" kiosk, and the computer screen declared him a "progressive winner."

A 53-year-old Spanish-speaking voice-over specialist from Sunny Isles, Howard was suddenly the toast of the casino. He got his own impromptu party, topped off with an oversized check for $259,945.

Then, just hours later, the casino took Howard's jackpot away. Officials ascribed his victory to a computer glitch and told him he would not be paid.

Howard saw the Seminoles as cheats — and after Howard's story hit the TV news, so did much of South Florida. Critics took to the radio airwaves and opinion pages of South Florida newspapers, and though few dared utter it, the episode gave new traction to an ugly old term: "Indian giver."

Then, on September 18, while the story was still gaining momentum, the casino did a complete 180, announcing that Howard would get every penny of the jackpot.  

If gamblers had lost faith in the house, that faith was quickly restored. "Everybody was in an uproar over Freddy," his attorney, Keith Herbert, says of the local media. "But the next week, they were on to the next story."

The media, however, tend to miss the story when the media are the story. Largely forgotten in the days after the two sides resolved their dispute was the question of whether Howard had any legitimate claim to the jackpot.

It turned out that the Player's Club Card he swiped was not his but his father's. The same computer screen that called him a "progressive winner" also named his prize as "$0." What's more, an independent firm, Gaming Laboratories International, analyzed the kiosk and confirmed the casino's ruling of computer error.

As Herbert tells it, the story became a phenomenon only through the artful efforts of Howard, who had learned a bit about media savvy during his career as a voice-over specialist. After Howard lost his jackpot, he told his story to friends in the Spanish-speaking media. From there, the story jumped to the English-speaking press, TV, and radio.

"Before [Howard] went to the media, [the Seminoles] wouldn't even acknowledge our letters," Herbert says. And after the media got interested? "We went right to the top."

Herbert never made a single legal filing — he didn't have a case. "The only reason [the out-of-court settlement] happened here, I'm convinced, is that the media took the story," he says.

With Howard's case, the Seminoles moved swiftly and shrewdly. Had the controversy lingered, it may have led to discussions about how, if it wanted, the casino could cheat any jackpot winner, legitimate or not.

Although the U.S. government's National Indian Gaming Commission has regulatory power over Indian casinos, it doesn't have nearly the manpower necessary to keep watch over the roughly 400 Indian casinos whose total revenue pushes $25 billion. So the commission entrusts the Seminole Tribe to be its own regulator. Casino officers operate under a fraction of the state oversight they do in Las Vegas.

No, the tribe doesn't cheat its gamblers because, ostensibly, a few big winners are good for business — they give hope to the majority, who lose. Rumors of cheating — like those created by Howard's experience — are nearly as disastrous to the casino's image as actual evidence of it.

Indeed, in explaining the payout to Howard, Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner invokes the casino's public image. "It's important for a dispute to be resolved so that all the players that come to the Seminole casino feel good about the outcome," he says.

What's more, generosity of this kind has a way of making the tribe's most outspoken detractors forget their grudges. While on vacation, Howard received an e-mailed message from New Times. In a reply cheerfully signed "Jackpot Freddy," he asked, "how can I help u?" Our follow-up response asked Howard to describe his experience with the Seminoles. He did not write back and did not respond to subsequent messages.

For a moment, Howard was a threat to the casino's image. He's not anymore.

If the Seminoles are sensitive to media reports that would cast their business practices in an unflattering light, they don't always move fast enough. The tribe seems still to be learning how to ward off bad publicity before it can inflict institutional damage.

In this sense, the tale of the Paradise Theatre provides an object lesson.

Conceived as a cabaret where showgirls perform acrobatic dances à la Cirque du Soleil, the Paradise is a venture by Joseph and Greta Shamy of Boca Raton, who run a similar club in Philadelphia. For the Seminole Hard Rock, this represents its first foray into Vegas-style stage entertainment, a detailed description of which was incorporated into the lease.

The Seminole Tribe leases the space in its entertainment district to a Maryland firm, Seminole Properties Retail, which in turn subleases to the private retail shops, restaurants, and nightclubs, like Paradise.

A showgirls performance in which dancers strip down to thongs and pasties was only slightly racier than the behavior common at Spirits and Pangaea, the two "mega-clubs" on either side of the Paradise. Those clubs have their own cast of scantily clad dancers — either on the payroll or among the patrons. But since the action at Spirits and Pangaea happens in the cordoned-off, 21-and-over section of the Hard Rock, it keeps a strictly adult audience.

On November 15, the Paradise Theatre staged a private opening for members of the Seminole Tribal Council and executives from the casino and Seminole Properties, all of whom "expressed their delight and their satisfaction with the burlesque-style entertainment," according to a filing in the lawsuit to come.  

Soon after its private opening, though, the Paradise got a visit from a pair of undercover security guards employed by the Seminoles' Tampa casino. The security guards told management that dancers had solicited them for prostitution. The club would have to be shut down.

On November 20, Seminole Properties followed through with a move to terminate the Paradise lease on the grounds that it was permitting lewd and lascivious conduct.

To the club owners and to their attorney, Peter Goldman, it looked as though undercover security guards had been sent to conjure a pretext for closing the club. And nothing about the guards' court testimony changed the mind of Goldman: "It looked like a setup, it smelled like a setup, and it came across as a setup in the courtroom," he says.

Indeed, Broward County Circuit Court Judge Alfred Horowitz expressed his own doubts about the guards' claims: "It's important to note that in evaluating the credibility of testimony, a naked transcript can never see the manner in which the witness testifies, which is very important to the court. And I take that into account." With that, Horowitz ruled to deny Seminole Properties' request for an injunction, and the Paradise was allowed to stay open.

The celebration didn't last long. Nine days later, on December 22, officers from the Seminole Police Department ordered the club closed, this time for operating without a tribal liquor license.

The owners were incredulous. The Paradise had a valid Florida liquor license, and Goldman says that in the case of every other Hard Rock nightclub, it's a mere formality that the state license becomes the tribal license. They even have the same license numbers and expiration dates. Paradise was still so new that it was operating under a temporary tribal liquor license while its permanent one was pending. On January 11, the Seminole Tribal Council declined to issue it, citing among other factors "lewdness, assignation, and/or prostitution" — the very same allegations that wouldn't hold up in a Broward court.

Paradise management was not invited to the Tribal Council meeting to defend itself against the allegations of prostitution — Tribal Council meetings are not open to the public. Nor could managers appeal the council's ruling — the Seminoles have no tribal court.

But the tribe should have known it wouldn't be that easy. Just as Freddy Howard pressured the tribe through the media, so could the Paradise.

On March 4, the Sun-Sentinel published an article in which owner Greta Shamy mourned the loss of her $7.5 million investment and the lack of legal recourse.

Jeff Levy, chief operating officer of the company that owns Paradise, approached New Times to complain about the club's treatment. He was so incensed by the tribe's claims about not permitting "lewdness" that he e-mailed candid photographs of women making out on the mechanical bull at Tequila Ranch — a bar, Levy pointed out, that was not even located in the adult section of the complex. Another photo showed a topless woman riding the bull, the implication being that the Seminoles already had entertainment more risqué than Paradise.

With New Times asking questions about the Paradise case, the Seminoles and the club owners moved closer to a settlement. Then on March 26, Levy called to say that the tribe had changed its mind and that Paradise would be allowed to open after all. He requested that New Times kill the story.

Asked in early April whether the club had aimed to pressure the Seminoles through the media, Levy said, "I don't think that was our intent." He admitted to "a few bumps in the road" with the Seminoles but stressed his club's "very positive relationship with the tribe."

Still, from the Seminoles' perspective, this episode isn't as neatly resolved as Freddy Howard's. Entrepreneurs who would open a shop near the casino will first conduct research, which will surely turn up articles and legal filings that detail the tribe's mercurial dealings with the Paradise. This might lead entrepreneurs to think twice about going into business with a tribe that has shown itself to be both capricious and insulated against lawsuits.

Ultimately, the Seminoles' sovereign status is the legal equivalent of going nuclear: a weapon powerful enough to end any conflict but that carries the threat of mutually assured destruction. If the tribe uses it, it runs the risk of making itself radioactive in the international business community.

To make a contract enforceable, the Seminoles must include language waiving their rights to sovereign immunity to lawsuits. This was an important aspect of the contract the tribe forged with Baltimore's Cordish Co., which developed the Seminole casino complexes in Hollywood and Tampa and stood to rake in a hefty stake in the casino profits.  

As with the Paradise, the tribe swung wildly between extremes of hospitality and confrontation. The original contract with Cordish was negotiated by James Billie in his capacity as tribal chairman, but after his ouster in 2001, the tribe's new leadership moved to amend it — only to later regret those amendments. And last May, when Cordish wouldn't let the tribe buy out the contract, the Seminoles sued their own partners.

There followed a flurry of legal salvos — five lawsuits, all related, including one by Cordish affiliate Power Plant Entertainment that accused Hard Rock executives of rigging the $965 million bid in the Seminoles' favor.

Although the Seminoles had already signed away sovereign immunity in their dealings with Cordish, their attorneys could still fall back on other portions of the Tribal Gaming Ordinance. In their complaint, tribal lawyers argued that the Seminoles are "a protected class [that] cannot waive or contract away the protections afforded by law" and that "the Tribe has fallen victim to just such an illegal and unconscionable contract." The Seminoles' wealth, argued its attorney, had "attracted the attention of unscrupulous opportunists."

To be sure, the perception of Indians as victims of rapacious treaty-breaking Americans contributed to the Indian Civil Rights Act, as well as the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. But since that legislation opened the floodgates for vast tribal wealth, the tribes' former claims to victimhood no longer resonate, say experts in the field of Indian relations.

"When most of the tribe's members are making $100,000 or more and driving fancy cars and have second homes and flying private jets around, the element of sympathy just disappears," says Howard Vogel, a financial analyst who has written books on the economics of Indian gaming.

On February 26, the parties announced an agreement. Seminoles attorney Alan Kluger refused to speak about the terms of the settlement, but the news release issued by the two sides suggests that Cordish agreed to, in effect, cap its share of future Hard Rock profits at $756 million, even though the existing contract would have paid Cordish roughly $2 billion, based on the tribe's own projections, as stated in its complaint.

Still, since the settlement, "there's no enmity between Cordish and the tribe," Kluger says. "Cordish built this place, and the tribe understands that and is very appreciative." Attorneys for Cordish did not respond to numerous calls for comment.

The settlement, Kluger says, represents an improvement in the terms of the Seminoles' contract with Cordish, and in public statements, the tribe has pointed out that the litigation vanished before it could have an adverse effect on the tribe's bond rating.

But it didn't happen until after the litigation had already been splashed all over the business pages of USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. For all the short-term savings the tribe realized in contesting its own contract with Cordish, questions remain about whether by taking its partner to court the tribe damaged its own reputation among major development corporations.

With sovereign status, the tribe can play by its own rules. But while American corporations are drawn to the money to be made in the casino business, they may feel the game is fixed in favor of the Seminoles.

"If they're smart and savvy in public relations, they'll understand this," Vogel says. But he argues that the Seminole leaders may not have the luxury of thinking so far into the future. After all, the Tribal Council is elected, and even those members who understand the merits of restraint, Vogel says, "may not be able to sell this to their membership quite as easily — and still get elected."

Of course, there's no reliable way for a non-Seminole to know whether these debates occur in the Tribal Council. The tribe did not respond to New Times' requests to speak with Tribal Council members.

Of all the multifarious interests that Seminole leaders must serve — from their own tribal members to well-heeled investors and Fortune 500 executives — the group that is easily overlooked is the one that congregates nightly at the Seminole Hard Rock. And no single group may be more essential to the tribe's continued prosperity.

Since the new casino opened in May 2004, the Seminoles' massive security staff kept a shepherd's vigil over this herd, and according to tribal spokesman Gary Bitner, not a single patron died accidentally during that time.

But 2007 has been a bloody year. On January 14, hotel and casino staff discovered two young men dead, in different parts of the complex, in seemingly unrelated incidents.

Seemingly, that is, because nearly three months later, no one knows the circumstances that led to the deaths of Brian Osorio and Mark Grosso — except, perhaps, detectives with the Seminole Police Department, and they're not talking. Not even to the Osorio and Grosso families.  

For all its sensitivity to bad publicity, the tribe seems to have a blind spot when it comes to accidental deaths on its casino property. Or at least those that don't involve a former Playboy Playmate dying from a lethal pharmaceutical cocktail.

Brian Osorio was born to Colombian parents and lived with his brother Kevin in a Hollywood bungalow just a few miles southeast of the Hard Rock. For most of his life, Osorio had tangled with the myriad complications of lupus, a disorder of the body's immune system that in Osorio's case weakened his kidneys and prompted doctors to install a shunt, or tube, in his right arm for dialysis.

He wasn't a regular at the Hard Rock, but on the night of January 13, Osorio went to Passion nightclub — just a few doors down from the darkened windows of the Paradise Theatre — to meet with friends. At some point in the night, Osorio left his friends to go to his car.

A report from the Broward County Sheriff's Department included in the medical examiner's file offers only the vaguest details of what happened next: that Osorio walked toward a parking garage and in so doing fell against a metal pole, cutting his right arm on a light meant to illuminate the sidewalk at the very place where his shunt was. The report says that Osorio managed to walk a short distance, though a blood trail suggests that he'd already begun massive bleeding.

His body was found around noon on the 14th, near a large pond next to Renegade Barbecue and the Lucky Street parking garage, on the east side of the Hard Rock complex.

To those close to Osorio, this doesn't make sense. For one thing, his car was in the parking garage on the west side of the complex, not on the east side. For another, Osorio would have had to scale a fence to get to the location where he was found. "He's not the type of person who would climb a fence," says Kevin Osorio, adding that his brother took great care to not risk an injury to his arm.

Brian Osorio's girlfriend, Geissel Moreno, says the same and manages a laugh as she recalls Osorio's characteristic lethargy. "When we used to go out, he would fall asleep in the bar before he could get to the car, because he was so lazy."

On the day of Osorio's funeral, a group of friends and relatives went to the casino and sought out security guards. "We talked to like five different guys," Kevin Osorio says. "Every single one said they weren't working there that night." The casino hasn't responded to the family's requests for video footage from the garage.

The Seminole Police Department has jurisdiction, and its detectives have told the Osorios only that the matter remains under investigation. The family can't check Osorio's cell phone and wallet — the police still have those. An accidental death on American soil usually produces a police report within days. In the Osorio case, it's been months, and one still hasn't surfaced.

"If it had happened a few miles east, there'd be more accountability by the police department and the government officials," says Thomas Cubit, a Fort Lauderdale attorney hired by the Osorios. "The problem is that you're in a tribal arena, and they have sovereignty. Everything shuts down."

The tribe's sovereignty makes it hard for Cubit to offer his clients a legal remedy, but he says he succeeded in getting a response from a tribal attorney. The attorney assured him that if the accident occurred through any negligence by the casino, the family would be paid through the Seminoles' liability insurance policy. "But it's a Catch-22," Cubit says. "'We'll pay if we're responsible, but we won't help anybody find out what actually happened out here. '"

Tribal spokesman Bitner touts the same liability policy and says the tribe pays a "significant amount of money every year" to claimants. Asked to provide the names of people who have landed settlements with the tribe, Seminoles attorney Donald Orlovsky suggested that New Times contact two Tampa-area attorneys, neither of whom returned calls before this article's deadline.

But it's the Seminole Department of Law Enforcement that investigates the casino for liability in Osorio's death — and that's a glaring conflict of interest, considering the casino provides the department with its primary source of funding. Then again, since the tribe can't be sued, it's a moot point.

As to the status of the investigation into Osorio's death, calls by New Times to the Seminole police were referred back to Bitner. He says the department never issues its own report until after the toxicology report comes back from the Broward County medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper. Perper confirmed that the toxicology report on Osorio is still pending.  

As a criminal defense attorney, Domenic Grosso knows all about getting information out of police departments. It hasn't made any difference in his desperate search for answers in the January 14 death of his son, Mark Grosso.

At age 32, Mark seemed finally to have licked his addiction to drugs — for more than three years, he'd been clean. He had a new home and a new job as a salesman with a building materials firm. Then something happened to him on the night of January 13, at the Seminole Hard Rock.

All that Mark's family knows is what it's heard from a friend with whom Mark was staying. The friend told the Grossos that he and his girlfriend had left the hotel on the night of the 13th after arguing with Mark. The friend, who could not be reached for comment, also told the family that the next morning, he called Mark's cell phone but that Mark didn't pick up, leading the friend to phone the hotel's front desk to request that they knock on the door of Mark's room. But that doesn't quite explain why it took till roughly 11 that same night before hotel staff discovered Mark in his room, dead.

That night, Mark may have been carrying $2,000 in cash to pay the expenses of a building materials trade show he was to attend the next week in Las Vegas. When Mark's body was discovered, his wallet was missing, as was his camera. His sister Jennifer closed out Mark's bank account and says there was still plenty of money left in it for his trip to Vegas.

The preliminary report of the Broward County Medical Examiner found no evidence of foul play nor any trace of drugs in his urine, though the definitive answer can come only from the toxicology report, which is still pending.

Domenic Grosso and his family don't understand why in the meantime Seminole Police Department investigators can't tell them about the status of the investigation.

Grosso says the department first told him it would be seven to ten days before his family could get the police report. When it didn't materialize after two weeks, he sent a string of letters asking about the delay. After a police records clerk told him to send $1 and a self-addressed stamped envelope, he did that, and still nothing.

His ex-wife, Charlotte Danciu, who is Mark's stepmother, told him that a Seminole police officer told her that the police report is being held up by "risk management," an explanation that enraged Grosso.

"'Risk management'? What the hell does that have to do with the death of my son?" he asks. Of course, the term "risk management" tends to be associated with a company's liability concerns. As in the Osorio case, the Seminole police had the job of assessing the liability of the Seminole hotel — the department's primary source of funding.

Bitner did not offer a definition of "risk management" as used by police officers investigating deaths.

In mid-February, when Grosso's secretary called the Seminole Police inquiring about the report, an officer hung up on her. In a follow-up letter, Grosso wrote: "I understand that my son is not in the same category as Anna Nicole Smith, but he was my son, and whether he is famous or not is not the point. I would expect the same treatment no matter who he is, especially in light of the circumstances of his passing."

Bitner says that, as with the case of Osorio, the toxicology report has delayed the release of the police report. For the Grossos, that's not good enough.

"I understand that it's not going to bring back my son," Grosso says. "But they could at least give our family some closure."

The Seminoles seem to have embraced their role as trailblazers for American Indian tribes. They claim to be the first tribe to have legalized gambling, as they claim to be first to acquire a major American corporation.

In fact, the holding company for Hard Rock International is a tax-paying corporation, like any other in Florida, and according to tribal spokesman Bitner, that company is vulnerable to lawsuits. Seminoles attorney Orlovsky also concedes that "the notion that we would assert our immunity to protect our existence is less of an issue than it previously was."

Perhaps the Seminoles will be the first tribe to shed the advantages that come with its sovereign status. Says Bitner: "You can argue that the tribe is moving in that direction."  

You could also argue that the tribe isn't moving fast enough.

Attorney Keith Herbert takes this position. In the months since Herbert helped Freddy Howard win the jackpot prize at the Seminole Casino, the Fort Lauderdale-based attorney has taken lots of calls from people whose visits to the Hard Rock were marred by some traumatic — or merely unfortunate — event.

One woman told Herbert a man followed her home from the Seminole Hard Rock parking lot and raped her. A man claimed he was arrested and held without knowing the crime he allegedly committed. Another complained that the casino talked him into registering for a prize, only to then give his credit card information to a solicitor.

They're all unsubstantiated cases, but Herbert's point is that the Seminoles' sovereign immunity means that a case — legit or not — is doomed. Trying a case against the tribe, he says, is "like banging your head against a wall."

The only way to persuade the tribe to adopt American civil rights, Herbert says, is through public demonstration. He imagines a picket line outside the Seminole Hard Rock. But Herbert forgets that on the Seminole reservation, Americans may not have the same rights of free speech and assembly. Scratch that plan.

John Glogau is the assistant U.S. attorney in Tallahassee who handled the government's 1990s suit against the Seminoles for using gaming devices not approved by the state. He has a theory on how the tribe might be persuaded to Americanize its laws: the incentive of Class III gaming.

Currently, the Seminole Hard Rock offers only Class II slot machines in which the players compete against one another. Most slots players prefer Class III, in which they compete against the house. And currently, Class III slots are available at Broward County pari-mutuels, which pose a threat to the Seminoles' share of the gambling market.

To get Class III gaming, the Seminoles must either wage an arduous and uncertain legal campaign at the federal level — or they can negotiate an agreement with Florida. In this negotiation, Glogau says, the state has leverage with which to ask the tribe for concessions.

"The only way you'll ever be able to sue the tribe is if the State of Florida enters into a compact with the tribe covering Class III gaming — and in that compact the tribe agrees to waive sovereign immunity for injuries or whatever that occur at the gaming facility," Glogau says. "Otherwise, they have sovereign immunity and you can't touch them."

With a Tribal Council election to happen May 10, it would seem that if there's going to be major policy changes, they will happen soon. And former tribal chairman Billie just might be in the thick of it. Billie, exiled from Seminole politics since 2001, says that he'll be on the ballot and that he's "looking forward to coming back and being chairman."

But the 67-year-old alligator wrestler and pilot is uncharacteristically measured about whether he would move the tribe away from the business advantages that come with sovereign status.

He worries that without immunity from lawsuits, the tribe would encounter a slew of fraudulent personal injury claims that would be expensive to defend. Of course, that exposure is a fact of life for American governments and corporations.

There's no popular movement toward scaling back all those generous portions of Indian law, nor toward increasing federal oversight of Indian casinos, and so American legislators are under no pressure to make those reforms.

But it could happen. All it would take is one scandal. It could be a case in which an American family is stymied by Indian laws, as with the Grosso and Osorio families. Or there could be one particularly flagrant abuse of the Indians' advantages in the business world.

"I think it's all part of the same package," says Vogel, the financial analyst and Indian gaming author. "They are getting closer to the point where there's going to be a political backlash."

But for a Seminole nation that's rich and getting richer, it may be hard to see that danger. In public statements at least, there's no tone of compromise.

"The concept of sovereign immunity — it's important to the tribe, to all Indian tribes," tribal spokesman Bitner says. "And it's not something the Seminoles, or any Indians, are going to give away lightly, if at all."

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