Alabama Supreme Court to hear PCI case

Published 12:14 pm Saturday, June 16, 2012

Alabama Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the Poarch Band of Creek Indians tax-emption status after an appeal filed this week that points to the now infamous Cariceri v. Salazar case Escambia County Commissioners have been attempting to flesh out since April.

Lee County resident Jerry Rape sued PCI and its casino business last year in Montgomery County Circuit Court for refusing to pay him a $1.3 million jackpot he said he won at the tribe’s Creek Casino Montgomery.

Circuit Judge Eugne Reese threw out the case because he said the case was beyond the jurisdiction of state courts to decide.

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In his lawsuit, Rape pointed to the same 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Cariceri case as the Escambia County Commission has, arguing it means the federal government “did not possess authority to take land into trust for the tribe, and the tribe is not entitled to immunity.”

In their motion to dismiss the case, PCI said Alabama courts have no jurisdiction over the incident because it “occurred on the Tribe’s trust lands, which are held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the Tribe.”

The Cariceri case has been the focal point of the ongoing dispute between the Escambia County Commission and the PCI over the legality of the tax-exempt status of tribal lands currently held in federal trust.

A recent reply to a commission letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior confirmed the tribe’s trust status, but failed, commissioners said, to address their main concern of how the Cariceri case impacts the issue, if at all.

Attorney Bryan Taylor — whose services were retained by the county commission in April as they began to look into the tribe taxation issue — said this week that the Rape case before the Supreme Court could have an impact on the commission’s inquiries.

“Although Rape’s case is unrelated to Escambia County, the legal briefs in the case seem to vindicate the county commissioners,” Taylor said in a press release this week. “Rape’s attorneys are making strong legal arguments that he believes will be taken very seriously by Alabama Supreme Court justices.”

On Monday, commissioners announced they would take a step back from the legal process and extend an invitation to tribal leaders in order to attempt to come to an agreement on the issue.

During the same meeting commissioners Raymond Wiggins and David Quarker, the latter of whom represents the district that includes the area in Atmore housing the PCI Wind Creek Casino and Hotel, said they felt the commission no longer needed to work with Taylor. Both commissioners, joined by Commissioner Brandon Smith, who has supported the tribe throughout the course of the dispute, said they felt Taylor’s background as a member of former Gov. Bob Riley’s advisory panel made him a poor fit to aid the county in their quest to clarify the Cariceri decision’s connection to PCI; however, a formal vote on the issue was not taken.

Commissioner Smith, who has been in sole opposition to the commission’s actions towards PCI from the beginning, said he believes the Supreme Court will see the differences between the situation in Poarch and that of the Narragansett tribe in the Carcieri case.

“The Narragansett tribe was recognized by the state of Rhode Island,” Smith said. “The Poarch Creek Indians are recognized federally. What PCI has is whole different ball game. That’s two different tribes and two different situations.”

Quarker emphasized that the case going before the state Supreme Court and the commission’s inquiries are unrelated.

“That case has nothing to do with the Escambia County Commission,” he said.

Quarker said Taylor was hired by the commission only for legal advice and should not blend any aspects of the Rape lawsuit with what is going on in Escambia County.

“Mr. Taylor has never represented us,” Quarker said. “There was never a case or a lawsuit or any legal action taken against PCI by the county.”

Despite a statement in the recent release acknowledging the two situations as separate legal items unrelated to one another, Taylor said of the Escambia County dispute, “no matter how badly the tribe wants everyone to believe it, Escambia County commissioners have not gone off the reservation. To the contrary, they are raising fair and legitimate legal questions about the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the tribe’s claim to tax-free status.”

“If this were any other multi-million dollar corporation not paying taxes, the county commission would get scalped — and rightly so — for looking the other way while ignoring a ruling by our nation’s highest court. No court has ever ruled that the Poarch Creek Indians’ casinos don’t have to pay state and local taxes. So why aren’t they paying their fair share, just like every other Alabama business? That’s a perfectly fair question, and on behalf of those who do pay taxes, the commission is right to ask it.”

Taylor went on to say PCI has lashed out at the commission over legal questions that come from Washington — not Brewton.

“The Poarch Band of Creek Indians has launched a relentless smear campaign against Escambia County commissioners for simply doing their job and trying to follow the law.” Taylor said. “It is now clear to everyone that the Escambia County commission didn’t create this problem for the tribe, the U.S. Supreme Court did. And the U.S. Supreme Court cannot be ignored.”

Friday, Quarker was quick to say Taylor’s comments do not necessarily reflect the feelings of the commission.

“(Taylor) might have his own agenda and his comments have not been approved by the county,” Quarker said. “They are just personal comments he made. Anything he said after Monday should not have any bearing on the county or PCI.”