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Attorney general strikes at electronic slot machines

With two new federal court rulings in hand, the Florida Attorney General's Office on Monday revived its perennial campaign to abolish "video slot machines" on Seminole Indian reservations.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth's office filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Miami, alleging that unlike bingo and low-stakes poker, which are permitted by state law, the video games are illegal casino-style gambling.

"Floridians have overwhelmingly rejected casino gambling by their votes in three separate statewide referendums," Butterworth said. "To permit such gambling on Indian reservations or anywhere else within the state's borders violates public policy expressed by the people of Florida."

Since 1987, when the Seminoles introduced the first 50 video games to the Orient Road facility, state officials have sought to shut down that portion of the operations.

However, the 2,200-member tribe, which also has gaming halls in Broward and Collier counties, has continued to expand. In Tampa, there now 350 machines, open 24 hours a day, which feed the estimated $80-million a year the Seminoles collect statewide.

This expansion has been accomplished under the protective cloak of sovereign immunity that all Indian tribes enjoy.

Lawyers for the state now think they may have found a federal court ruling in New Mexico that would remove that shield.

In that ruling, "If Indians are offering Class III gambling _ slot machines, poker _ without an agreement (with the state), that's a violation of the (Indian) Gaming Act," said Peter Antonacci, Florida deputy attorney general.

"They waive their sovereign immunity and can be susceptible to civil suit," he said.

Everything hinges on how one defines the machines in use at the Seminole Gaming Palace.

Ask Buddy Levy, the general counsel for Pan American and Associates, which manages the Tampa operation for the Seminoles, and he'll emphatically say the Seminoles' machines are not slots.

Yes, you put money into the machine and a variety of differently valued symbols appears randomly. Unlike slots, Levy said, the players do not compete against the machine, they compete against each other.

Machines that mimic lotto games, for instance, are banked in groups of five to 20. They all feed the same jackpot pool, just as players do in the neighboring bingo hall, Levy said.

"The attorney general's opinion is that if it plugs into a wall it's illegal," Levy said. "Under the Indian Gaming Act, the tribe is allowed to use technological aids to enhance playing of the game."

Jurisdiction has always been a touchy subject. The Seminoles say the federal Gaming Act is paramount. State officials have insisted that unless a formal agreement is reached between the Indians and the state, any type of gambling that is not permitted throughout the state is not permitted on Indian land either.

"Now the Indians interpret that law as saying once a state has any gambling, they can have casinos. The sky is the limit," Gov. Lawton Chiles said.

A casino proposal was defeated at the polls in 1994 by a 2-1 margin. The Seminoles say they should be allowed to open casinos on tribal land anyway.

That's where the second federal ruling comes in. The Indians have long sought to negotiate such an agreement, but Chiles, an opponent of high-stakes gambling, has resisted.

The Indians sued, alleging the state was not negotiating in good faith. The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a hard blow to the Seminoles when it ruled 5-4 in March that the Indians cannot sue the state in this case.

"If we can't sue them, and they won't negotiate, where does that leave us?" said Jim Shore, a Seminole Indian and in-house counsel for the tribe. "Is that an old white man's trick, or what?"

In the cool, dark haze of the gaming room Monday, the finer legal points seemed to be drowned out in the incessant electronic hum and bleating. Most of the players casually stroking the video screens with their fingers made it clear they would feel badly deprived if the machines were removed.

"That's all I do is gamble in the game hall, play bingo and poker," said Leroy Newman, 48, as he signed for an $11,000 payout from a few days before.

Newman, a former landscaper and car salesman, has spent as many as three days at a time in the Seminoles' facility. He said he has won $2.25-million for his efforts. He is significantly vaguer about how much he has lost, saying only that he has been broke four or five times.

_ Information from Tallahassee Bureau Chief Lucy Morgan and the Associated Press was used in this report.