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Federal attorneys defend Seminole gambling deal, saying it doesn't violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act

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The Seminole Tribe will be able to operate sports betting under an agreement with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The gambling deal includes allowing people throughout the state to use mobile devices to place sports bets that are run through computer servers on tribal property. But a key issue in the lawsuit is whether the IGRA allows the Seminoles to accept bets that are placed off tribal property.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has fired back against allegations that a deal giving the Seminole Tribe control of sports betting in Florida violates federal law, pointing to a decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to allow the tribe to accept bets from throughout the state.

Department attorneys filed a 33-page court document late Tuesday in Washington, D.C., disputing that the sports-betting plan violates the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a federal law that provides a framework for tribal gambling. U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich held a hearing last week in a lawsuit filed by two pari-mutuel facilities challenging the sports-betting plan and directed department attorneys to submit additional arguments.

DeSantis this spring negotiated a gambling deal, known as a compact, that includes allowing people throughout the state to use mobile devices to place sports bets that are run through computer servers on tribal property. The Legislature passed a law approving the deal during a May special session. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland allowed the compact to take effect in August.

But a key issue in the lawsuit is whether the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, known as IGRA, allows the Seminoles to accept bets that are placed off tribal property. In the filing Tuesday, federal attorneys acknowledged that sports bets would be made by people off tribal property --- but said the state authorized such bets.

“Federal defendants contend that for federal law purposes, and consistent with federal law, the online sports betting provisions in the compact reflect a permissible hybrid approach wherein gaming activity that occurs off of the tribe’s Indian lands is authorized under state law, and gaming activity that occurs on Indian lands is authorized by IGRA pursuant to the compact,” the document said.

The department attorneys also wrote that the compact “permissibly only authorizes gaming that occurs on the tribe’s Indian lands, consistent with IGRA, and does not and could not authorize activity occurring off of the tribe’s Indian lands.”

“When the compact was presented to the secretary, she was not presented with a decision whether to ‘authorize’ persons in Florida to place an online sports wager with the tribe when they are physically located off of the tribe’s Indian lands,” the document said. “The state law ratifying the compact had already done that.”

Owners of Magic City Casino in Miami-Dade County and Bonita Springs Poker Room in Southwest Florida filed a lawsuit challenging the agency’s decision to allow the compact to move forward, arguing that the sports-betting plan is a “legal fiction” because federal law does not authorize bets that occur off tribal lands. The plaintiffs also allege the sports-betting arrangement will have a “significant and potentially devastating impact” on their businesses.

During the hearing last week, Hamish Hume, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the federal law is “focused on gaming on Indian lands.”

“IGRA cannot be used to try and create some sort of loophole” to offer games off tribal lands, Hume said.

“That is not the purpose of IGRA. And what has happened is that there is now millions of people all over the state of Florida right now who are not anywhere near Indian lands who are able to place bets through their sports app on their phone or on their laptop that would be illegal, and in fact not just illegal but now a felony, if conducted by my clients (the pari-mutuels) or anyone else,” he said.

Adding to the complexity of the dispute is a 2018 state constitutional amendment that required voter approval of gambling expansions. Critics of the sports-betting plan contend it violates the constitutional amendment because it was not approved by voters.

Deeming bets to be placed on tribal land because the servers are located there “is an end run around the citizens’ initiative requirement in the Florida Constitution,” Hume said during last week’s hearing, adding, “IGRA is being abused here to accomplish something that is unlawful in the Florida Constitution.”

Supporters of the gambling deal, however, have argued the plan did not have to go before voters because sports betting is being run by the tribe. In the document Tuesday, the federal attorneys said Friedrich should not decide the state constitutional issue.

“The court should consider refraining from reaching such questions as plaintiffs presumably could and should resolve these issues in an appropriate state (court) forum,” the document said. “Indeed, since many of the claims and relief sought in these cases involve the state and state law, a state forum would be the more appropriate for any such challenge. But here, the state has represented to the secretary and this court that it entered into and ratified the compact consistent with state law, including the Florida Constitution. The court should rely on those contentions and reject plaintiffs’ unsubstantiated arguments to the contrary.”

Friedrich directed the federal attorneys to file additional arguments after expressing frustration during last week’s hearing that the government was not taking positions on the issue of gambling occurring off tribal land. Friedrich is considering motions in the case, including a request by the pari-mutuels for summary judgment.

Under the 30-year compact, the Seminoles agreed to pay the state at least $2.5 billion over the first five years in exchange for having control over sports betting throughout Florida and being allowed to add craps and roulette to the tribe’s casino operations. The tribe launched sports betting Nov. 1.

In addition to the lawsuit filed by the pari-mutuels, two prominent South Florida businessmen and the group No Casinos also are challenging the compact in federal court in Washington. They allege, in part, that the federal government’s approval of the compact “adversely impacts plaintiffs’ properties and neighborhoods by, among other things, increasing neighborhood traffic, increasing neighborhood congestion, increasing criminal activity, reducing open spaces and reducing their property values.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.
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