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PCI responds to allegations of commissioner bribery

A statement from Poarch Band of Creek Indians tribal chair called recent accusations of the bribery of county officials  “baseless” and “false.”

The remarks came after the Escambia County Commission on Monday tabled its budget following a dispute over legal fees for the tax assessor. During the meeting, accusations of bribery, shady accounting and illegal meetings were made among county tax assessor Jim Hildreth and commissioners.

The proposed budget called for a 30 percent reduction in outside agency funding, as well as an increase in the tax assessor’s line item for legal fees. Commissioners Brandon Smith, Raymond Wiggins and Larry White voted to table the budget that would have increased the line item from $45,000 to $110,000 to defend the office in the suit to impose ad valorem tax on tribal property.  Hildreth previously has attempted to assess taxes on tribal properties. The tribe, in return, challenged the action in U.S. District Court. The case is set for mediation on 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 Monday 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.

“They want it both ways, and from what I understand, commissioners have been offered quite a substantial contribution from Poarch contingent on you cutting my (legal fee) budget,” Hildreth said then, referring to $500,000 offered to the county for road projects in each of the five districts. Last year, the $500,000 was used to install a new roof at the Atmore Community Hospital. This year, the funds will be used for road projects.

In a prepared statement, Tribal Chair Stephanie Bryan said it was unfortunate Hildreth “continued to be unrelenting in his baseless claims against the Tribe.”

Bryan said the Tribe has a history of being “good neighbors,” who last year alone donated $6.9 million to many schools, law enforcement agencies and organizations throughout the state. She said the Tribe began awarding $500,000 annual to each of the three counties were casinos are located in 2005.

“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 wrote.

She stated a recent ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, while specifically discusses gaming on the reservation, holds the same legal argument on the taxation issue.

“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,” she stated. “The 11th 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 11th Circuit’s opinion in PCI Gaming forecloses Mr. Hildreth’ s principal argument in this case,” she wrote.