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Seminole Tribe ups ante on slots

A federal suit to stop their slot machine operations is in the works. Meanwhile, the tribe builds the devices.

In a federal suit filed against the Seminole Tribe of Florida three years ago, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa claimed the tribe's electronic slot machines were illegal and asked a judge to order them removed.

Today, that lawsuit is stalled, and the tribe is making more money than ever on the machines. And now there's a new twist: The Seminoles have cranked up a business manufacturing their own electronic slot machines.

The tribe's new business might run afoul of the Johnson Act, the 1962 federal law regulating the manufacture and transport of gambling machines. The law requires anyone involved in the manufacture of gambling devices to register with the the U.S. Attorney General's Office if the business affects interstate or foreign commerce.

It isn't clear whether the tribe is selling its machines to other clients in Florida or elsewhere. But tribal administrator Timothy Cox said the machines are being produced as part of a joint venture with a company in the Caribbean country of Belize.

The tribe provides graphic design and software parameters to Technologies Brazil, the Belize company, Cox said. "We give them that information from our attorneys and they do the rest."

The Gambling Devices Registration Unit at the U.S. Department of Justice has no record of registration by the Seminole Tribe or Technologies Brazil.

Violation of the Johnson Act carries a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and a two-year prison term. Any devices manufactured or transported in violation of the Johnson Act can be seized and forfeited to the government.

Cox referred other questions about gambling devices to tribal gaming administrator Ron Padgett. Padgett was contacted twice but declined to discuss the matter with the Times. Written questions about the manufactured devices were faxed to tribal attorney Jim Shore, but he also declined to respond.

The electronic slot machines are the lifeblood of the Seminole economy.

The tribe also offers low-stakes poker and high-stakes bingo at its casinos in Tampa, Immokalee, Hollywood, Coconut Creek and Brighton, but the slots account for an estimated 90 percent of all gambling receipts.

Overall, profits from gambling operations provide the cash to finance nearly 95 percent of the $203-million-a-year Seminole budget. Casino revenues also have enabled the tribal council to increase dividends to each of the 2,500-plus tribe members to $2,000 a month beginning in October.

The Seminoles have hundreds of the machines at their largest casinos. The computerized video slot machines feature full-color touch screens, take paper currency in denominations from $1 to $100 and can be played in English, French or Spanish. The popularity of the slots stems from the promise of jackpots of $50,000 or more.

A bank of new video slot machines apparently manufactured by the tribe was installed in the Seminole's casino in Tampa in July, shortly after the tribe declined to renew the casino management contract of Pan American & Associates and hired its own employees to oversee the 50,000-square-foot facility on Orient Road.

The 75 new Super Touch Lotto machines feature the lighted Seminole Tribal Council logo showing a thatched-roof chickee hut and campfire on the cabinet fronts and a paper identification label under a plastic shield affixed to the side of each machine. The label indicates the devices were manufactured in April and list the address of the tribe's headquarters in Hollywood.

Investigators from the Arizona Department of Gaming who toured Seminole casinos earlier this year made notes about similar, new electronic slot machines. The machines had paper registration stamps that "state the gaming devices were manufactured by the Seminole Tribe of South Florida," according to a report completed by the department in May.

The investigative report was compiled after an application by a gambling machine manufacturer named Leisure Time Casinos and Resorts to do business in Arizona.

The Arizona Department of Gaming denied Leisure Time's application May 5 for a variety of reasons. The department said it found evidence that Leisure Time and its subsidiaries sold gaming devices to tribes that had no state gambling compact, unlawfully transported machines across state lines, provided false information to regulators and misrepresented the company's financial position in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Investigators said the Seminoles and the Miccosukee Tribes in Florida were among the Indian nations that received devices and software upgrades from Leisure Time.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows an exemption to the Johnson Act for gambling device manufacturing, but only if a tribe has entered into a state compact that legalizes such devices.

After the failure of referendums in 1978, 1986 and 1994 to legalize Las Vegas-style casino gambling, Florida has rebuffed every Seminole overture for a state compact. The tribe even held out a 55-45 split of gambling profits with the state if it could offer roulette, blackjack and other Las Vegas games. The late Gov. Lawton Chiles and Gov. Jeb Bush both said no.

To settle the impasse, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in April issued new rules designed to give tribes the opportunity to offer full casino gambling on reservation lands without a state's blessing.

Almost immediately, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth filed a federal suit challenging Babbitt's rulemaking authority. Attorneys expect little action on the case until next year, after the presidential election.

The lawsuit focusing on the legality of the video slot machines has been pushed to the back burner until the Babbitt rulemaking squabble is straightened out.

The tribe still says its video slot machines are legal because they spit out a paper receipt, not money. In that respect, the devices are similar to Florida Lottery terminals that print out Lotto tickets, attorneys for the tribe argue.

But Butterworth's office still says the machines _ and their production _ are illegal.

"With the manufacturing, they're just going from one illegal thing to another," said Assistant Attorney General John Glogau.

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or