Tribe releases statement in response to bribery claims

Published 6:31 pm Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Poarch Creek Indians (PCI) Tribal Chair Stephanie Bryan released a statement today in response to the county tax assessor’s claims of bribery.

Escambia County Tax Assessor Jim Hildreth claimed at a county commission meeting Monday that commissioners took bribes from the PCI.

“It is unfortunate that Mr. Hildreth continues to be unrelenting in his baseless claims against the Tribe,” Bryan said. “First, he insisted that he could tax our tribal land that is held in trust by the United States and would have issued an assessment in violation of well-established federal law if the Tribe had not protected its sovereignty by requesting an injunction from a federal court. Now, Mr. Hildreth has falsely accused the Tribe of bribing county officials.

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“What Mr. Hildreth has failed to mention is that the Tribe has a history, which pre-dates the tax dispute, of being good neighbors and donating to many schools, law enforcement agencies and organizations throughout the state. Last year alone, we donated $6.9 million. Though we have been good philanthropic stewards since 2005, the Tribal Council started the practice of setting funds aside for projects specifically within Escambia, Elmore, and Montgomery Counties, the counties where we employ many hardworking citizens. In 2014, at the request of David Stokes, chairman of the Escambia County Commission, and the Escambia County Health Care Authority, the Tribe made a $500,000 donation to Atmore Community Hospital. This year, the Tribe made a $500,000 donation to Escambia County for road improvements.”

Hildreth previously has attempted to assess taxes on tribal properties. The tribe, in return, challenged the action in U.S. District Court.

Last week, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s opinion that the state cannot regulate gaming on tribal lands. In a separate ruling, the appeals court ordered the tribe and the tax assessor’s office enter into mediation over an estimated $34 million tax dispute.

Hildreth, who is represented by Birmingham attorney and former U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, said mediation is set for Sept. 29 to determine whether the Tribe is liable for an estimated $3.5 million annually in ad valorem taxes, plus an estimated $20 million in back taxes.

Hildreth said he has “a right to defend” himself since Poarch, as the originator of the suit, can stop the proceedings. Hildreth said Poarch claims it is a sovereign nation and therefore not subject to the taxes. However, Hildreth said, the tribe has received some $43 million in public monies over the last 10 years, which he says validates his argument that the group should pay property taxes.

“Mr. Hildreth disappointingly continues to waste taxpayer dollars on a legal position that is frivolous, costly and that he does not recognize the goodwill being built between the Tribe and its neighbors,” Bryan said. “Just recently, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a favorable decision in Alabama v. PCI Gaming Authority. While that case involved gaming rather than taxes, it addresses the same legal arguments being made by Mr. Hildreth. Like Mr. Hildreth, the State sought to use the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in the Carcieri case to challenge the legal status of lands that the United States holds in trust for the benefit of the Tribe. The Eleventh Circuit resoundingly rejected the State’s argument, reaffirming that the United States holds the lands where the Tribe’s gaming facilities are located in trust for the benefit of the Tribe and that those lands “are properly considered ‘Indian lands.’” Because a federal statute explicitly exempts Indian lands held in trust by the United States from state and local taxation, the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in PCI Gaming forecloses Mr. Hildreth’ s principal argument in this case.”

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