Enigmatic partners pursue a rich deal

Casinos: The Seminole chief is dismissed and a lawyer shot, but Baltimore's Cordish Co. completes the difficult project.

March 15, 2004|By Robert Little and Mike Adams | Robert Little and Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Donald Trump thought it couldn't be done. He'd exercised all his usual charms to land a casino development deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida - hiring lobbyists, wheedling politicians, indulging tribal leaders at his Manhattan office tower - but none of it took root, and the author of The Art of the Deal abandoned the cause.

Even one of his most trusted associates said the prospects for developing a Las Vegas-style casino for the tribe were hopeless, Trump said. Richard T. Fields, a business associate and one-time manager for Marla Maples, then Trump's wife, worked the Seminole casino project on the developer's behalf and declared it a lost cause.

But sometime after that failed courtship with the Seminoles - and after his business relationship and friendship with Trump were "terminated," according to the real estate magnate - Fields found a new ally: Baltimore developer David S. Cordish. And a new deal was on.

"He said it was impossible, then he did it for himself," Trump said in a recent interview. "We're looking at that very closely."

Two Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino complexes developed by the Cordish Co. - the fruits of a deal that Fields initiated, according to tribal officials - will be finished in the coming days. The resort-style facility near Tampa that opened fully on Thursday, and the flagship project in Hollywood expected to open in May, are among the most envied and potentially profitable casinos in the Indian gambling industry. Their 3,800 gambling machines, bingo and poker games, hotels and restaurants are expected to generate more than $4.76 billion in net revenue over the next 10 years, with more than $1.3 billion going to a Cordish Co. subsidiary, making the firm one of the highest-paid casino developers to ever strike a deal with an Indian tribe.

An examination of the Seminole Tribe's casino development deal, including a study of financial documents and court records, offers a revealing glimpse inside the boardrooms where the multibillion-dollar casino deal was crafted. Fields was the first of many enigmatic characters that Baltimore's celebrity development firm embraced during its three-year plunge into tribal gambling and politics.

The Cordish Co. eventually signed the deal with James E. Billie, the Seminole Tribe's alligator-wrestling chief, who was later ousted from office amid allegations of embezzlement, corruption and sexual harassment. Tribal official Timothy W. Cox - engaged as a Cordish Co. business partner - was arrested by the FBI, accused of squandering Seminole riches through shadowy businesses in Nicaragua and Belize, and later cleared after an abortive federal trial. The tribe's general counsel, one of the Cordish Co.'s primary contacts, was shot three times as the deal neared completion.

The Cordish-led development team of respected bond lawyers, strategists, gambling experts and Wall Street financiers worked desperately to prevent events from sullying the project. They helped write and implement new tribal laws and issued lengthy legal opinions in hopes of pacifying nervous investors.

And in the end, they pulled together the deal. Cordish calls it his proudest accomplishment.

"It's conceivable with this deal that David Cordish is going to make more money in two years than he's made his entire life," Cox said.

The Fields connection

The Cordish Co., developer of the Power Plant at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, is one of the nation's specialists in designing and building urban retail and entertainment projects. The only five-time winner of the Urban Land Institute's prestigious development awards, the company has carried out successful projects in Houston, Charleston, S.C., and other cities.

Its development success aside, the Cordish Co. had never built a casino or worked with an Indian tribe prior to its contracts with the Seminoles and was thus lacking in the particular experience and political dexterity that such deals typically demand. As such, any study of the company's leap into the casino development business quickly leads outside the company, to Fields.

In March 1996, long before the Cordish Co. contemplated an Indian casino in Florida, Fields and Trump flew to the Seminole Tribe's Big Cypress reservation in a private jet to meet with Billie, a godfather of the Indian gambling business who opened the nation's first high-stakes Indian bingo hall in Hollywood in 1979. Billie is known for such exploits as eating a panther that he shot in the Everglades, then arguing in court that endangered species laws do not apply on Indian land. "Chief" Billie - he always preferred that title to the more precise "chairman" - says he has long admired Trump's swashbuckling style.

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