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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Seminole Tribe pours millions into state political donations



The Seminole Tribe of Florida has become increasingly aggressive doling out campaign donations as state leaders consider a new gaming agreement that could bring the Tribe billions more in gambling revenues.


Over the last three years, the Tribe has given more than $2.7 million to more than 90 politicians, a dozen political committees lawmakers control or the two major parties. That's more money than the Tribe gave out in the previous 12 years combined and far outpaces political donations by other gambling interests, state campaign finance records show.


"The Seminole Tribe of Florida has been, and continues to be, actively engaged on multiple levels in the political and legislative process," said Gary Bitner, a spokesperson for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.


When the Florida Legislature reconvenes Jan. 12, lawmakers will be charged with reviewing a $3 billion gaming compact that Gov. Rick Scott signed with the Tribe earlier this month. The Florida Legislature must approve the deal.


Under the 61-page tentative agreement, the Seminole Tribe would get the exclusive right to operate blackjack, craps and roulette at its seven casinos in exchange for revenue sharing payments over 20 years. Its payments are made based on a sliding scale that rises the more the tribe makes in profits, and the deal guarantees a $3 billion minimum over seven years, beginning in 2017.


The agreement replaces the compact signed in 2010 by Gov. Charlie Crist and ratified by lawmakers, which guaranteed $1 billion over five years but did not include craps and roulette and allowed blackjack only at the Hard Rocks near Hollywood and Tampa and three other casinos.


The Seminole Tribe is not the only group with interest in the compact's outcome and giving money to politicians. Other gambling-related businesses in Florida, including slot machine operators in South Florida, are also donating. But no single company among them has given more than $150,000 in 2015 to political campaigns as of Nov. 30, according to state campaign finance reports.


The donation surge puts the Seminoles in an elite class of powerful political interests in Florida. The $2.7 million total is slightly ahead of what traditional powers like U.S. Sugar Corporation and Florida Blue have given to state political campaigns over the last three years, but still far from catching companies affiliated with Walt Disney Co. or Florida Power and Light. Over the last three years, those two powerhouses poured more than $6 million each into state politics.


The biggest recipient of the Seminole Tribe spending spree has been the Republican Party of Florida, which collected $100,000 in checks from the Tribe in 2015 and $1.1 million in the previous two years. Another $75,000 went to the to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee earlier this year.


The Florida Democratic Party hasn't been overlooked, collecting $115,000 in 2015 to go along with $590,000 it received over the previous two years.


Beyond money for the parties, the largest single donation by the Tribe was $500,000 in 2013 to Let's Get to Work, the political committee run by Scott.


More recently in 2015, the Tribe has targeted key state legislators. State Sen. Rob Bradley and State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, both Republicans and lead negotiators for the Legislature during compact negotiations, received $5,000 each for political committees they run.

[Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2015 6:36pm]


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