Inmate tells of tribal deals
By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Four years ago, Charles H. Kirkpatrick was piloting corporate jets to Europe and the Caribbean on an $84,000-a-year salary and the orders of his high-flying boss, Seminole Chairman James E. Billie.
Now Kirkpatrick wears green, prison-issue work clothes and spends his time picking up cigarette butts and repairing televisions at the 800-inmate, minimum-security federal prison camp in Montgomery, Ala. The U.S. Air Force veteran and former CIA employee is inmate No. 55737004, serving 13 months for tax evasion.
In a recent 90-minute interview, Kirkpatrick, 63, told the St. Petersburg Times that he is in prison because of the investigation into Billie, the flamboyant, six-term Seminole chief ousted by his tribe last year.
Kirkpatrick said federal agents wanted him to tell a grand jury about cash payments he gave Billie, money Kirkpatrick had earned on the sale of tribal aircraft.
But a plea deal fell apart, and he wound up in prison.
In one airplane deal, Kirkpatrick handled the sale of a nine-passenger Falcon 50 jet once owned by former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. The tribe bought the aircraft for $8.4-million, refurbished it and later sold it for $9.62-million. From the proceeds, Kirkpatrick said he collected a $250,000 commission.
"I gave James a cash gift out of that," Kirkpatrick said.
He declined to specify the exact size of the payments to Billie on this and other aircraft sales, except to say they added up to tens of thousands of dollars and were always in cash.
Kirkpatrick said Billie never demanded a precise cut of the profits, saying instead, "Are we going to be taken care of?"
According to court papers, Kirkpatrick initially admitted making a false statement on his income tax return by failing to report $619,000 he collected on aircraft deals. He claims he omitted the income because he never received 1099 forms.
While all of the aircraft were purchased with tribal funds, Kirkpatrick said he does not believe Billie broke the law by taking a share of the proceeds when the planes were sold.
"The Indians' laws are not the same as the white man's laws," Kirkpatrick said. "Anything approved by the chairman is gospel."
Tribal attorney Donald Orlovsky said the Seminole Constitution and bylaws gave Billie no such authority.
A federal grand jury has been investigating Billie, 58, in connection with possible violations of federal laws governing embezzlement, theft and bribery, according to a September letter to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs from Seminole General Counsel Jim Shore.
Concerning the aircraft deals, Shore told the Times, "It was standard for James to use a middleman in those sales. We were trying to trace what happened with the airplane sales and never got anywhere."
Amid the widening federal inquiry, the Seminole Tribal Council voted last May to suspend Billie indefinitely pending the outcome of a special audit and a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former tribal administrator Christine O'Donnell.
The tribe subsequently filed two civil suits against Billie accusing him of misappropriating tribal money.
One accuses Billie and his handpicked administrator, Timothy Cox, of an illegal stock manipulation scheme that drained the tribal treasury of $20-million.
A second suit accuses Billie and Cox of fraud involving $241,000 in sick pay. Some of the money was improperly diverted to Billie, the suit alleges, and some was used to pay off O'Donnell, who claims in her suit that Billie impregnated her, forced her to get an abortion, then fired her.
Billie could not be reached for comment, and his attorney, Robert Saunooke, did not return messages from the Times.
Kirkpatrick, a Seminole employee for five years until he was fired in 1998, said Billie had a penchant for indiscriminate dealmaking, but said he believes Billie's leadership led the tribe to prosperity.
"If somebody came to James with a deal, it was like he figured if he threw enough of it at the wall, some of it would stick," Kirkpatrick said. "But because of James, a whole new world opened up for the Seminoles."
Relying on income from five gambling casinos and the sale of tax-free cigarettes, the tribe now allocates a dividend of $3,000 a month to each of its approximately 2,800 members.
Kirkpatrick, who started a locksmith business in La Belle after losing his pilot's job, initially faced three years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the tax charges. He finally agreed to plead guilty to a single count and testify before a grand jury in return for a recommendation for leniency.
But when the U.S. government would not guarantee a lighter sentence until his cooperation was complete, Kirkpatrick backed out of the plea deal.
A federal judge sentenced Kirkpatrick to prison. The court has since declined to hear his appeals.
Kirkpatrick says he has undergone a religious conversion in recent months, and frequently assists the prison chaplain in prayer matters.
He expresses resentment toward the U.S. government but none toward Billie, his old boss.
In December, just weeks before he was to report to prison, Kirkpatrick was hired by a surprise client to make a quick flight from La Belle to Kissimmee. It was the ex-chairman.
Billie, who is married and has three children, was with his girlfriend and the couple's new baby, Kirkpatrick said. The purpose of the flight was never made clear, but Billie seemed enthusiastic to see his former pilot.
"When I saw him, you would have thought I was his long-lost brother," Kirkpatrick said. "I said to him, "I never told (investigators) you ever told me to do anything illegal.'
"I just wanted to let him know I forgave him for what's happened."
-- Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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