Trump's Gamble for Indian Wampum

The Self-Proclaimed 'Biggest Enemy of Indian Gambling' Has Suddenly Backed a Plan To Build Casinos on Seminole Land

Ken Silverstein In Florida last week, Mallory Horne, a Tallahassee lobbyist and cherished old friend of Governor Lawton Chiles, began to promote a Seminole Indian­proposed deal between the tribe and the state: casino gambling in exchange for a 45 per cent cut of the gross. While the overture is surprising given the notoriously dim view Chiles and other Florida officials have taken on casinos, what's even more remarkable, given his years of vitriolic anti­Indian gambling bluster, is who's helping pay Horne's tab: Donald Trump.

In 1996, no one gloated more than Trump after the Supreme Court decided the Seminoles could not sue Florida when the state said no to casino gambling. Declaring his joy at the court's embrace of his own sentiments, which he expressed in a failed 1993 lawsuit against the National Indian Gaming Commission, Trump called himself ''the biggest enemy of Indian gaming.'' But now, Trump, like many other commercial casino operators, has adopted an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em posture on reservation gaming. As Jason Ward of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union says, ''The commercial guys are realizing they're not going to win, and see the future in management contracts'' of Indian casinos. And in chasing that future, Trump stands poised to spend upward of $1 million over the next year to convince Chiles that gambling and Florida are perfect together, according to lawyers who've worked on similar efforts.

Since Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA)—which codifies tribal gambling rights—in 1988, nearly 200 tribes have opened gaming operations. Revenues have grown from $570 million in 1990 to $7 billion last year, a figure that represents a 10 per cent slice of America's booming legal gambling industry. Despite being restricted to bingo and low-stakes poker, the Seminoles have become one of the biggest players in the field. Their four bingo halls brought in approximately $497 million in 1997 and the tribe estimates that an agreement to open up casinos will quadruple its gambling revenues.

A few major obstacles stand between the Seminoles and the larger gaming receipts, however: not only have Florida voters overwhelmingly rejected casino gambling three times, but Governor Chiles has also adamantly opposed any such move, on or off the reservation.

Enter Horne, whom both Trump and the Seminoles are paying to negotiate a state-tribe ''compact'' as required by the IGRA. As well as being one of Chiles's oldest political friends and confidantes, Horne also has clout in Florida's legislature, where he was once speaker of the house and president of the state senate. But Horne is merely the latest acquisition to an already-impressive arsenal of lawyers and lobbyists both Trump and the Seminoles have at work on casino matters. In addition to retaining the services of another two Tallahassee lobbyists, on May 9 Trump signed a contract with the Washington office of the Miami-based law firm Greenburg Traurig (best known for its 1996 violation of campaign finance laws and the dubious fundraising ministrations of partner Marvin Rosen, whose activities as 1996 Democratic National Committee finance chair have been the focus of multiple federal probes) to act as his Indian gambling law advisers. The Seminoles, meanwhile, have three Washington lobbying firms tending to their gaming interests on the Hill.

While Trump's lobbying alliance with the Seminoles was somewhat sudden, it didn't happen in a vacuum. Shortly after the 1996 Supreme Court decision, Trump made a surprise visit to the tribe's Big Cypress reservation. According to an account in the tribal Seminole Tribune, Trump ''asked about the gaming atmosphere in Florida,'' to which Seminole Chief James Billie ''offered an analogy which combined a whore, a finger, and the virtue of patience.'' As the paper put it, ''Trump's card was played quickly'': After raising the notion of a possible future joint venture, Trump flew a Seminole delegation up to Atlantic City on his jet to enjoy front-row seats at the Trump Taj Mahal for a Rod Stewart show. Trump also invited Billie to be a judge at last year's Miss Universe pageant.

These were minor enticements, however, compared to the rich rewards Trump could potentially make working with the Seminoles: the tribe's current outside contractors took home about $60 million in fiscal 1997. But as he moves forward in his new alliance, Trump could find himself haunted by his own past observations. In 1996, Trump noted that Indian gaming is ''bad for most Native Americans,'' a notion backed up by the General Accounting Office, which found that tribal governments received only about one-third of post-prize revenues from their casinos.

While the Seminoles have done better than most, with all 2200 tribal members getting cash payments of $1500 per month, about 15 per cent of Seminoles live in public housing, and unemployment on the reservations stands at around 20 per cent. Many Seminoles who work at the bingo halls have run up huge gambling debts. And, according to a knowledgeable source, some pay off those debts by borrowing from a loan fund set up by tribal officers that charges interest rates of up to 50 per cent.

But of all Trump's previous anti­Indian gambling statements, none may be more problematic for him than his repeated claims of ties between tribal casino operations and organized crime. His 1993 assertion to a Congressional panel that ''organized crime is rampant on the Indian reservations'' is remembered by many. Even more to the point was his 1995 comment to the Bergen Record—''I think there's a crime faction running various casinos throughout this country, casinos on Indian reservations''—which may be right on the mark in the case of the Seminoles.

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