By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The Seminole Tribe of Florida used at least $3 million in federal COVID relief money to stage a high-stakes raffle as an incentive to get tribal members as young as 12 vaccinated.
Flyers pitched the raffle as the “Shot of a Lifetime!” and announced that anyone who was fully vaccinated and provided proof by Oct. 4, 2021 would be entered into the drawing to be held the next day.
The grand prize was $1 million. The prizes for first through fourth place after that were $750,000, $500,000, $250,000 and $100,000, respectively. Another 20 lucky winners would each receive $20,000. Also, all adults over 18 who were entered were to receive a $500 vaccine distribution.
Tribal critics accused Tribal Council Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. of improperly “allowing the distribution of federal COVID funds for allowing a distribution through a system of lottery conducted by Dr. Vandhana Kiswani-[Barley], Tribal Executive Director of Health and Human Services.” A recall petition accusing Osceola of mismanagement adds, “Many tribal members who received vaccinations and [were] eligible for entry were not entered into the lottery and did not receive any money from the federal funds.”
“Tribal members also have knowledge that the Chairman’s illegitimate son, who is a minor, was the million-dollar winner,” the petition says. Osceola has denied both allegations.
The tribe, which is based in Broward, did not televise the drawing citing “patient privacy,” and has refused to name the winners it says were randomly selected by “a computer program.”
WINNERS WILL REMAIN ANONYMOUS
An updated flyer released shortly after the drawing says the winners “will remain anonymous,” but noted they ranged in age from 13 to 68. The flyer says the grand prize million-dollar winner was said to be a Hollywood resident who lives off the reservation. The first ($750,000) and fourth ($100,000) place winners live on the Hollywood reservation; the second-place winner of a half-million dollars resides on the tribe’s Big Cypress reservation. The third-place winner of $250,000 was described only as a “nonresident.”
In contrast, the Florida Lottery operates under strict security guidelines and procedures in an aim to assure fairness and transparency. They include having a law-enforcement officer who serves as the draw manager and an auditor from an independent auditing firm who attends and participates in drawings. Draw equipment is kept in a secure vault.
Even if the raffle wasn’t rigged, it could be problematic for Osceola and the rest of the five-person tribal council.
Federal Treasury rules regarding the use of $350 million in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, part of American Rescue Plan Act funds administered by the Department of the Interior, allow tribal governments to use financial incentives to get their people vaccinated. But only “so long as such costs are reasonably proportional to the expected public health benefit.”
Some, but not all, tribal governments have used COVID incentives, but with payouts a mere fraction of those handed out by the Seminoles of Florida. Examples include:
- The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North and South Dakota offered $2,000 to every enrolled member over the age of 5 who received both of their Moderna or Pfizer shots, or one shot of Johnson & Johnson.
- Oklahoma’s Muscogee (Creek) Nation gave between $300 and $500.
- Wisconsin’s Oneida and Menominee tribes gave $500.
- The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma awarded $300 to more than 4,000 of its government employees.
- Montana’s Blackfeet Nation handed out incentives of $250 per vaccine shot to Blackfeet students between 12-17.
- The Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico offered incentives of $100 and $200.
- The Navajo-Hopi Families Relief Fund used a variety of incentives ranging from $250 gift cards, t-shirts, bumper stickers and a grand prize of a “Phoenix Suns game experience.”
- Washington’s Spokane Tribe of Indians gave $100 to its vaccinated members, as well as entering them in several $500 drawings.
Ire over the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s outsized prizes came to a head at an Oct. 10 special meeting of the Tribal Council at which more than 200 members sought Marcellus Osceola’s ouster as chairman for that and other reasons. The effort failed, but not before Osceola labeled as “false” the claims that he misused federal COVID funds and that his son won the million-dollar raffle drawing.
CHAIRMAN OSCEOLA RESPONDS
Chairman Osceola did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email. Florida Bulldog, however, obtained a transcript of the October meeting of the tribe’s chief governing body during which he expressed his thoughts.
According to the transcript, marked “Tribal Members Only” and prepared by Tribal Clerk Jacob Ramos using an audio and a visual MP3 recording of the meeting, Osceola acknowledged that federal COVID money was used for the big money lottery, but said it was approved by the five-member council, not by him alone.
“I guess the ‘he’ should be changed to ‘Council’ because the Council approved the distribution of COVID funds from the federal government,” Osceola said. “We were doing the same thing that everybody else was doing around the world – trying to get people vaccinated, trying to get herd immunity through the Tribe, and this whole Council here was a part of that to approve these dollars to be spent to try to get people to sign up and get vaccinated so they could be part of this drawing.”
“Again, [the] Tribal Council approved these funds so it’s no shock. So, if I’m guilty of this charge then the whole Council’s guilty,” he said.
Osceola went on to say the “false claim of a million-dollar winner being my illegitimate son, um, you know that has repercussions those allegations, because you know again defamation of character, slander,” Osceola said. “People get sued for a lot less.”
INVESTIGATION ‘SHOULD BE MADE’
Tribe member Laura Billie, who wrote the recall petition that was signed by 285 members – more than the required 20 percent who voted in the 2019 election that Osceola won – said the chairman’s assurances about the raffle are not a sufficient explanation, and that an investigation of what happened should be made.
“Yes, but it would have to be someone independent from the tribe. It would have to be outside the Seminole police which reports directly to the chairman, as does the health and human services department,” Billie said. “The way I see this is the COVID funds are to benefit the people … In this case they used the money for a lottery and a lot of the people did not benefit from that lottery, more than 80 percent.”
Lesley Billie, a fellow clan member and cousin of Laura Billie and an ex-wife of former chief James Billie, agreed and that the money should not have benefitted only a few. “I just felt we could have distributed it amongst the tribal members,” she said.
Dr. Kiswani-Barley refused to answer Florida Bulldog’s questions about how and where the raffle was conducted and referred a reporter to longtime Tribe General Counsel Jim Shore. Shore did not directly respond to a list of questions sent to him on Thursday, but did have tribe spokesman Gary Bitner issue this statement:
SEMINOLE TRIBE STATEMENT
“In the summer of 2021, during the peak of illness from the COVID Delta variant, health officials of the Seminole Tribe received unanimous approval from the Seminole Tribal Council to implement a unique and inventive program to spur COVID vaccinations that could prevent further illness and death among Seminole Tribe members. It was documented that many Native Americans were vaccine-hesitant, and unvaccinated Seminoles of all ages were getting sick and dying. The program included a nominal reward for vaccinations and the opportunity to win raffle prizes. Winners were chosen at random via computer-selected names of all vaccinated members. To ensure a fair outcome, one non-Tribe staff member from the Tribe’s Health, IT and Police Departments were the only individuals present at the time of the drawing. The selected names were not made public due to privacy requirements for all health records. The program resulted in a small increase in the vaccination rate among members of the Tribe. It is impossible to know how many lives were saved. Any suggestion of impropriety in any aspect of the program is absolutely not true.”
Like many other state and local governments in the U.S., sovereign native tribes have received several rounds of COVID funding, including via the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted in March 2021 and the even bigger Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in 2020.
Precisely what batch of federal COVID dollars was used to fund the Seminole’s high-stakes lottery isn’t known. USASPENDING.GOV, which tracks government spending, says the Treasury has dispensed $149.7 million in COVID relief funds to the Seminole Tribe of Florida – among the most federal aid provided to any native tribal government.
The tribe has approximately 4,300 registered members today.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida is one of the wealthiest tribes in the nation. A pioneer in the Indian casino industry, it acquired Hard Rock International Inc. and its related entities in 2007. The global company owns the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood and has Hard Rock cafes, casinos and hotels in 75 countries.
Hard Rock International is not publicly traded. Forbes magazine estimated Hard Rock International’s 2021 revenue was $3.2 billion. This year’s estimate is $5.2 billion.
In April 2021, the tribe entered into a 30-year gaming compact with the State of Florida that will pay the state a guaranteed minimum of $2.5 billion in new revenue over the next five years and an estimated $6 billion through 2030, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis. The deal, which also authorized sports betting in Florida through the tribe, was signed by DeSantis and Osceola.
Registered members of the tribe currently receive monthly dividend checks that total $126,000 a year.