Seminoles sue Miami businessman over $1.2 million gambling debt
When it came to betting against the Seminole Tribe of Florida, prominent businessman Jason Starkman didn't know when to walk away — yet so far he has still come out even. Last week, the Seminoles took the owner of Epicure Gourmet Market and Jerry's Famous Deli to court yet again to try to recover a $1.2 million gambling debt that Starkman has skipped out on for the past three years.
Starkman admits he lost the cash playing baccarat, blackjack, and pai gow poker at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, but he later argued in court that the losses were illegal because the Florida Legislature hadn't yet approved a compact with the tribe. Remarkably, Broward County Judge Richard Feder agreed — a decision the Seminoles are now appealing.
The argument, explains Barry Blum, Starkman's lawyer, boils down to when the state approved the tribe's compact.
In 2008, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that then-Gov. Charlie Crist was not personally authorized to sign an agreement without permission from the state's House and Senate. Yet the Seminoles' casino continued to operate in the meantime, sending $12.5 million of its gambling revenues to Tallahassee each month. The legislature finally ratified the compact in April 2010, six months after Starkman lost the $1.2 million.
"Under Florida law, it's an unenforceable debt because the compact wasn't legal in November 2009," Blum says.
In new filings in Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeals, however, the tribe's attorney, Katherine Giddings, claims the date doesn't matter because the legislature and the Seminoles had agreed to the compact before it was signed into law. That's why the tribe never stopped its payments to the state.
Starkman isn't the first prominent Miami Beach businessman to turn to the courts for help with an outstanding Indian casino debt. This past July, Ocean Drive publisher Jerry Powers was taken to court by the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut over a $1.2 million debt.
In his defense, Powers similarly argued his debt was an illegal gambling contract under Connecticut law and that state courts had no jurisdiction over the dispute because the casino, located about 45 miles southeast of Hartford, is run by the sovereign Mohegan tribe. Unlike Starkman, he later agreed to a settlement out of court.
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