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Bingo and Beyond

Step inside the Seminole gambling hall in Hillsborough County and the first thing you notice is that the Seminoles have little to do with it.

Each weekend, this tiny reservation draws players by the busload from Georgia, Alabama and cities throughout Florida. What lures them, mainly, are bingo jackpots.

Elsewhere in Florida, bingo jackpots are legally limited to $250. On the Seminole Indian reservations, bingo is a different game. Here, gamblers pay up to $85 for three hours of bingo and the chance to win a car or a huge cash prize. Or they can play electronic "bingo" on a video screen that looks and works much like a slot machine.

The bingo scene on a recent Saturday night:

Outside the Seminole hall east of Tampa, a neon sign advertises one jackpot game paying up to $85,500 and two others paying up to $16,000 and $20,000. Inside, a crowd fills most of the 1,600 seats in a two-tiered auditorium with a balcony.

In an adjacent room, called Seminole Palace, other gamblers try their luck on video gambling machines or a casino-style game called "decision bingo."

Scores of employees roam the Seminole bingo hall _ managers, security officers, sellers of soda and 25-cent "pull tabs," bingo callers, bingo card checkers, clerks in red bow ties strolling around with wads of cash to pay video machine winners.

Among them all, it is not easy to find anyone from the Seminole tribe.

The hall's general manager, Al Rivero, sports a lavender shirt, suspenders and a pair of gold bracelets this evening. He boasts about the growth of business here. In the decade since he opened the hall, its work force has grown from 65 to 350 people, and "we pay out in excess of a million dollars a week," he says.

Asked if any Seminoles help manage the Seminole bingo hall, Rivero pauses to think.

"Paul Vincent, he's part Indian _ he's in the instant bingo department, he's the manager of the department," he says finally.

"Most of the tribal members prefer to play than to work here," he adds. "They figure they can earn more money that way." He chuckles.

Perhaps this is why Seminoles in the little village beside the bingo hall don't seem that excited about the possibility of hosting Florida's first casino. Though their tribe owns the hall, they say they get almost nothing from the gambling paradise.

Ronnie Doctor, a 25-year-old village resident, sees one benefit from its existence: jobs.

"The thing about the bingo hall _ if an Indian needed a job, he'll get the job," he says. He works there himself, but "it's just minimum wage, you know," he says.

Otherwise the bingo hall "is not doing anything for us," he says. He is not sure a tribal casino would change that. "If it makes a difference, I'm all for it," he says with a shrug.

Between 50 and 60 people reside in the village. Some live in chickees, traditional Seminole huts with thatched roofs made of palm fronds. Others have moved into stucco town houses. The residents say tribal bingo revenues might help a family that needs a refrigerator, but their village gets no money from the gambling hall next door.

Bobby Henry, the village manager, says only six or seven residents work there. "I don't get money. They don't get money," he says, waving a hand to-ward the village. "The tribe gets money. Sometimes they come around, help out a little bit."

Joanie Henry and Barbara Sisneroz, two of his daughters, praise the village as a place to live. They like having a place that preserves the Seminole culture, its crafts, its language. But gambling, they say, is no more beneficial to their village than the state lottery was for Florida schools.

"Just the name makes it Seminole bingo," Joanie Henry says.

"Just the name, making money off us," Barbara Sisneroz agrees.

Opposing views on casinos

A 1988 federal law, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, requires that if a state permits gambling "for any purpose by any person, organization or entity" it also must be allowed on Indian reservations within the state.

As gambling has spread to states searching for money, tribes in search of money have been claiming a piece of this action. Already the federal law has led to gambling expansions on reservations in 12 states.

In the Midwest, where several states reintroduced riverboat and "Wild West" gambling, tribes have brought blackjack to White Earth, Minn.; dice games to Tama, Iowa; roulette wheels to Macy, Neb.; and slot machines to five South Dakota reservations.

In Florida, the money wagered on state-approved forms of gambling runs into billions _ $2-billion per year on the lottery, $1.6-billion on parimutuel races and jai alai and an estimated $1-billion on "charity" bingo.

Seminole reservations have raised the bingo ante. By promising jackpots as high $1-million, they have drawn gamblers across the country to play bingo cards.

In Hillsborough County, the creation of a small Seminole village 10 years ago was soon followed by the Seminole Smoke Shop, which sells cigarettes at a discount, and the Seminole bingo hall.

"Because of the village, the bingo hall and the smoke shop are here. The village makes it a reservation," Barbara Sisneroz says.

Yet most people in the village are unemployed, and the tribe gives the village "no support," she says. "It's like talking to a wall."

Now the tribe is seeking to expand gambling on the reservation dramatically. In this quest, the Seminoles are undisputably entitled to lotteries, poker games and betting parlors that broadcast various horse and dog races because Florida has legalized those forms of gambling.

The question facing a federal judge in Miami is whether it is too late for Florida to close the door to casinos and slot machines as well.

In a lawsuit, Seminole leaders in Broward County claim it is.

Bruce Rogow, a lawyer representing the tribe, cites two bases for this claim: One, Florida law allows cruise ships with casinos to pick up passengers in state ports for gambling trips. Two, by failing to prosecute sponsors of casino games at one-night charity and entertainment events, the state "permits" casinos.

Decrying "the hypocrisy of the state," Rogow contends the government's own lottery equipment fits its definition of a slot machine. "You insert an object and by reason of chance, you may be entitled to receive something of value. . . . If anybody else were running them, they'd be illegal."

The state counters that cruise ship gambling is limited to international waters, beyond the reach of its laws, and that the existence of one-night casino events does not make them legal.

"Casino gambling and slot machines are prohibited by Florida statute. I think that's where the inquiry ends," said Jonathan Glogau, the assistant attorney general arguing the state's case.

Motions for a summary judgment are due this week, which could bring the Seminole case for casinos to a quick conclusion. Both sides expect Judge Stanley Marcus to issue a decision without a trial.

If the tribe wins, the state would be required to negotiate an agreement to allow casinos on reservations. In those negotiations, the state could seek to regulate casino prize limits and hours of operation.

Video variations

While lawyers debate the legality of allowing Seminole slot machines, video variations of the old-fashioned Las Vegas slot machine are already in use.

Seminole Palace, a gambling center open 24 hours a day, is equipped with about 200 video machines that accept quarters and any paper currency up to $20.

The names of these machines sound like legal games in Florida _ Toucheasy Bingo, Pick 6 Lotto _ but their operation differs from slot machines only in two discernible ways. Instead of a handle, they have buttons to push or a touch-activated screen. And instead of coins, they dispense printed payout tickets, which are converted to cash by the clerks in red bow ties.

At the touch of a finger to the video screen of the Rainbow's End game, for example, a player is able to bet as much as $2 every five seconds. Its prizes are similar to slot machine payoffs: a row of three apples wins $5, three shamrocks $250. The rising jackpot is displayed across the top of the machine on an electric scoreboard. $12,878.31 . . . $12,878.32 . . .

The jackpot is available only to $2 bettors.

The palace also offers variations of bingo that create a flavor of casino action. In "decision bingo," for example, the players sit in a circle and bet quarters on bingo cards. Each person plays up to five bingo cards at once. The ante on each is 50 cents, and to keep playing a card, the player must bet another quarter on it after every third number called. The house keeps each player's ante, and the winner gets the other quarters.

Another variation, "lightning bingo," is played with one-dollar chips.

In the attorney general's opinion, the video machines are obviously illegal, and the palace is flouting Florida gambling laws around the clock.

"This is like hard-core Las Vegas gambling stuff," Glogau says.

The state has no power to prosecute gambling violations on Indian lands, however, and it has been unable to persuade federal prosecutors to do so. The attorney general has complained about reservation slot machines to U.S. attorneys in Tampa and Miami, and "to the best of my knowledge, there's been no response at all," Glogau says.

Jim Shore, the tribe's general counsel, contends the machines are just electronic versions of legal paper games such as bingo, the state lottery and the 25-cent "pull tab" lottery tickets sold at bingo halls.

"We think whether or not it's in a machine, it's the same thing," he says.

In its lawsuit, Shore says the tribe is seeking the right to operate all casino games on its five reservations. He expects its first casinos to open in Tampa and Hollywood, perhaps in two years.

In Tampa, the tribe has contracted with a company called Pan American and Associates to manage its bingo business.

According to Shore, the money received by the tribe goes into a general account that helps members in need of everything from housing to new eyeglasses. He says he cannot specify which services are bingo-financed, "but bingo has a lot to do with it."

Seminole leaders have said their gambling halls in Hollywood, Tampa and Okeechobee produce $3-million to $4-million for the tribe annually. Shore maintains that the Seminole village near Tampa would not exist without this revenue, but he says the tribe does not make public how much money is wagered in these halls, what their management expenses total or how tribal funds are spent.

A federal agency does collect information on the gross revenues collected and prizes paid at Indian gambling halls. But by federal law, "to the extent that we have that information, we can't make it available. Any information as to what's going on the reservations themselves is confidential," said Fred Stuckwisch, chief of staff at the Indian Gaming Commission.

David Olinger is a staff writer for the Times.