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Seminoles make billions but still seek government grants

Fort Lauderdale, Florida (AP) 12-07

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has touted publicly that the billions it makes off gambling has helped it become self-sufficient, but a newspaper investigation shows that it is still pulling in millions of dollars in federal government grants while claiming financial limitations.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, in a recent story , detailed numerous examples of the tribe claiming financial constraints when it sought federal help, like when it asked for thousands of dollars to pay for new officers, an airboat and computers for its police department – all of it needed because its casinos were drawing bigger crowds.

The tribe also sent a $123,130 bill to the Federal Emergency Management Agency after members evacuated to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood ahead of Hurricane Frances in 2004. Records show the guests rang up charges for 150 rooms, plus movies, alcohol, valet parking and expensive meals at the hotel, which the tribe owns. After rejecting initial claims, FEMA eventually paid $103,864.

In a five-year period ending in 2005, the tribe took in more than $3.2 billion in revenues while collecting $80 million in government aid, according to the tribe’s annual audits. The tribe’s almost 3,400 members each receive $120,000 annually from its enterprises.

Seminole Tribal Council member Max Osceola Jr. defended the grants, telling the Sun-Sentinel that the tribe is eligible like all other tribes whether “you have a penny in your pocket or a dollar in your pocket.”

The Seminoles, like most tribes, also receive grants based on policies and treaties established with the federal government for needs such as health care and education and a tribe’s financial strength is not considered.

“The tribes are absolutely determined that funding for their programs by the United States is not based on their economic position but is based on a treaty and statutory and trust responsibilities,” said George Skibine, a deputy assistant secretary over Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. “I’m not going to argue with that, but they think there is this obligation.”

And the Seminoles are not unique. The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, which operates a resort and casino west of Miami, spent $9.4 million in government aid in 2005. In Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe combined spent $5.9 million in grants that year, as their Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun hotel and casino took in an estimated $2.3 billion, according to the Indian Gaming Industry Report.

Tribes are required to report how their grants were spent to the federal government. The Seminoles created their own department in fiscal year 2005 to oversee government grants.

The Seminoles’ government reports show:

– That the U.S. Department of Justice gave the tribe $330,902 in 2005 after the Seminole Police Department reported a surge in calls because of growing crowds at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa. The grant paid for two new officers, 112 laptops and other computer equipment.

– That in 2006, another Justice Department grant helped pay for a $39,000 airboat for the Seminole police. The tribe cited police “budget restraints” in its grant application.

– That the tribe’s Water Resources Management Department received $20,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006 to mark high-water levels on its reservations. “The tribe has been working unsuccessfully to identify resources to fund the development of this baseline data,” the May 12 application said.

– That during the same month, the tribe applied to the Department of Justice and received $102,144 for the airboat and four unmarked police vehicles, plus radios and laptops. The addition of four child- and elder-abuse investigators was “causing a strain on the police budget,” the tribe said in its application.

– That this year, when the tribe completed a $965 million deal to buy the Hard Rock International chain of hotels and cafes, it sought several grants, including almost $200,000 for the establishment of tribal courts.

Gilbert Moore, a Justice Department spokesman, said the applications to his department are legitimate.

“Need has never been a consideration for our grants,” he said. Some cities, for instance, “are pretty well-to-do, but we wouldn’t discriminate against those communities.”

After the busy 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, FEMA reimbursed the Seminoles a total of $2.5 million for expenses for which any government would be entitled, such as debris removal. FEMA also paid the cost of moving the tribe’s aircraft away from approaching storms, records show.

After the Frances evacuation, FEMA initially rejected the Seminoles’ Hard Rock claim, finding the costs “beyond what would be considered reasonable,” records show. FEMA reversed course three times over the following year, but in September 2006 agreed to pay, based on a letter from the tribe’s emergency management planner saying the Hard Rock is a “shelter for the tribe’s elderly and special needs population.”

The guests included people who were neither old nor disabled. But FEMA spokesman Josh Wilson said that “once the Seminole Tribe showed FEMA correspondence that indicated the (casino resort) was listed in the emergency plan as a temporary emergency shelter, we made the funds available.”

FEMA plans to review all the tribe’s receipts as part of its audit and could require repayment of some or all of the money, Wilson said.

Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner told The Associated Press that the tribe is eligible for those grants because they are a sovereign government.

“These commitments stand regardless of how successful the tribe is,” Bitner said.

Information from: South Florida Sun-Sentinel