Four Florida legislators were picked up by a luxury bus at the Pensacola airport and driven to the Wind Creek Casino & Hotel in Atmore, Alabama, were they were joined by a fifth legislator. Together they and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who hosted the trip, had dinner and discussed the tribe’s vision for a gaming facility, including slot machines, in rural North Florida.

Ever since voters in Gadsden County approved slot machines for the tribe’s Creek Entertainment Gretna soon after it opened in December 2011, the matter has been tied up in court.

According to the Florida Times-Union, the trip by the all Democrat lawmakers was not paid for by the Legislative Black Caucus, who coordinated the trip. Instead their travel, hotel rooms and meals are to be reported as re-election account and political committee in-kind donations. Campaign contributions as well as a donation to the Black Caucus foundation were also received by the legislators. The fact that the five legislators, including Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, were feted by the tribe while it is lobbying hard for Legislative approval of slots in Gretna, does not sit well with some observers. The 2006 state gift ban prohibits lawmakers from receiving benefits from lobbyists, and the in-kind campaign expense classification of them is largely considered an exploitation of a loophole of the law.

The trip this month wasn’t the first of its kind for the Creek tribe, which in July 2014 welcomed Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne to Atmore. That trip netted the Florida legislator a donation to his political committee to the tune of $25,000 along with a $722.82 in-kind donation totaling from his food and lodging.

Invitations to visit the Wind Creek Casino on Jan. 7-8 were sent to all 26 members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, just days before they were due to be in Tallahassee for the start of the legislative session. While the other legislators declined to disclose the contributions they received, Narin, chairman of the Black Caucus, said while in Atmore he received a $1,500 donation to his political committee. However, Narain did not disclose the amount of the Creeks donation to the foundation, which funds scholarships and raises money for the annual State of Black Florida Summit to be held by the caucus February 2-7 this year. Revenues don’t have to be reported to the state by the nonprofit organization, and details about income won’t be required by end-of-year federal disclosures.

Efforts to bring slot machines to Gretna were defended by the tribe and Wind Creek President and Chief Executive Officer James Dorris said, “We believe that we have fulfilled the requirements to have slots at our Gretna facility, and we are currently litigating this at the Supreme Court,” he added, “We also are advocating to be included in legislation currently being discussed in conjunction with gaming in the state of Florida.”

Narain said that while he generally doesn’t favor increased gambling in Florida, even prior to the Atmore trip he had concerns that Gretna had been unfairly left out of Florida’s compact agreement with the Seminole Tribe worth $3 billion over the first seven years. The compact would allow a Palm Beach County pari-mutuel facility to have slots. A referendum was approved there 10 months after Gadsden.

The tribe’s efforts appear to have been a success as indicated by Rep. Bobby DuBose (D), who was part of the trip, and said that he supports having slots at the Gretna facility, and he will work for their inclusion in the Class III gaming compact being considered by the Florida Legislature for the Seminole Tribe.

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