A Cancer of Cronyism? Bet on It, Florida
Around the State
The Seminole casino compact approved by the 2010 Legislature could deliver up to $1.2 billion to the state's coffers over the next five years, but the back story on the deal makes that jackpot look like an ill-gotten gain. And some say the state got hosed.
Negotiating for the state was George LeMieux, a longtime friend and adviser to Charlie Crist, who, ironically, had publicly denounced the notion of casino expansion.
Priming the pump, the Seminole Tribe started funneling some $600,000 into the Florida Republican Party in 2006 -- the year Crist was running for governor.
The tribe's Coastal Development partner began donating another $300,000, according to campaign contribution records.
LeMieux, serving as Crist's chief of staff in 2007, negotiated the first Seminole agreement giving the tribe exclusive rights to deal blackjack and other banked card games at its casinos.
Though Crist has publicly fashioned himself as a staunch supporter of the state's open-government laws, his crony's dealings with the Seminoles were all conducted behind closed doors.
When Crist refused to submit the agreement to the Legislature for ratification, the pact was summarily struck down by the Florida Supreme Court -- as courts had done in other states where governors tried to unilaterally impose similar secretly negotiated deals.
But neither Crist nor the tribe was finished yet.
In December 2007, LeMieux became chairman of the Fort Lauderdale law firm Gunster Yoakley and kept negotiating with the Seminoles on behalf of the governor.
He did so, he said at the time, without pay. But records show that the Republican Party of Florida paid $150,000 to LeMieux's consulting company, MTC Strategies (named after the senator's sons Max, Taylor and Chase).
The state GOP has refused to discuss the $150,000, and LeMieux's Senate office did not return a phone message from Sunshine State News, but records also show that LeMieux had received $200,000 from the RPOF in the months before and after Crist was elected -- for a grand total of $350,000 funneled through the party.
South Florida political consultant Roger Stone says the confluence of interests between the tribe and the party is no coincidence.
"(LeMieux) tacked on blackjack, and that is the suspicious act," Stone said. "That's what I think the $350,000 was paid for."
Stone's speculation doesn't necessarily make a case of corruption, but following the money -- from the Seminole Tribe to the Republican Party to LeMieux -- helps to explain Crist's casino conversion, why GOP resistance to gaming ultimately broke down and why LeMieux was rewarded with a U.S. Senate seat by the governor.
(The plan was for LeMieux to keep the seat warm until Crist could occupy it next year -- though Crist's crumbling political fortunes have made that scenario a less-than-sure bet.)
A timeline chronicling the Seminole-GOP parlay has been compiled by the Andrew Jackson Institute of South Florida, which describes itself as "a not-for profit organization set up to expose corruption in the Indian gaming industry."
Among the highlights:
- Feb. 10, 2008: RPOF Chairman Jim Greer, another longtime Crist crony, tells the St. Petersburg Times that the state party will pay LeMieux $10,000 a month as a part-time consultant. These payments, which have not been disclosed in RPOF filings, were nearly identical amounts to the sums paid to political consultant Jay Burmer for unspecified duties over a 2 1/2-year period ending December 2009.
- April 22, 2009: Crist and the Seminoles present a new deal to the Legislature in which the tribe would pay the state $1.1 billion over two years. Lawmakers say no. (Note: This payout would have been larger than the one approved by the 2010 Legislature.)
- May 7, 2009: Crist refuses to seek more money from the Seminoles for Las Vegas-style slot machines.
- Sept. 1, 2009: Crist announces a new compact giving the tribe gaming "exclusivity" outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties. "This means no future legalization of Video Lottery Terminals or slot machines or card games at race tracks of other locations outside these two counties," said Mark Thibault of the Jackson Institute.
"In other words, Crist (with LeMieux holding the cards) folded to the Indians' key demands," Thibault stated.
Crist has not commented on the situation except to say he had to give the Seminoles a gaming compact because the U.S. Interior Department would do so if he refused to act and that Florida would get nothing.
Thibault says that's bunk.
"In fact, Crist was only required to bargain in good faith over Class III slot machines and faced no requirement to grant the Indians the right to operate card games illegal under Florida State law," Thibault said.
Crist and LeMieux may be shrewd politicos who effectively worked the Republican Party's money machine, but their poker-playing skills? Not so much. Thibault said the Seminoles bluffed their way to a lucrative payday.
Under the approved compact, the Seminoles will pay one of the lowest percentages of any tribe allowed to operated Vegas-style slot machines in the country, he said.
Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Florida, noted that two Connecticut tribal casinos last year paid over $411 million to the state of Connecticut for the right to operate.
Adjusting for the difference between the budgets of the two states, Bishop said the Connecticut tribal casinos pay more than nine times more in fees than the fees in the Seminole deal.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.