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    3 accused of diverting tribe funds

    A federal indictment accuses the suspects of a plot to embezzle millions from the Seminole Tribe.

    By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 25, 2002


    TAMPA -- The Seminole Tribe's former operations manager and two business partners have been charged in a 15-count federal indictment with conspiracy to embezzle $2.77-million from the tribe and with using a shell company to launder the money through Belize.

    Seminole attorneys believe the money was funneled along with other tribal funds into an account to buy the Legends Hotel in Nicaragua and establish a Hard Rock Cafe in the 95-room inn.

    Accused of conspiracy, embezzlement from an Indian tribe, illegal monetary transactions and money laundering are former Seminole operations manager Timmy W. Cox, tribal computer services consultant Danny Wisher and Wisher's son-in-law, Michael Crumpton.

    The three face fines and maximum sentences ranging from 90 to 115 years in prison if convicted of all charges. The U.S. government is also seeking forfeiture of the defendants' assets, including $2.77-million and the contents of two bank accounts they control.

    The indictments, returned by a federal grand jury in Miami on June 4, were unsealed Monday after Cox's arrest upon re-entering the United States from Nicaragua. Cox's bail was temporarily set at $150,000 and a bail hearing scheduled for July 1. Wisher and Crumpton have not been arrested and are believed to be out of the country.

    The indictments are the first returned in a federal inquiry begun three years ago by the FBI, the IRS and the U.S. Interior Department. Records show agents targeted James Billie, a colorful alligator wrestler and folk singer who led the tribe from 1979 until last year, but Billie was not mentioned in the indictment.

    The federal charges parallel civil accusations made against Cox, Wisher and Crumpton by the tribe in a lawsuit filed in Broward Circuit Court in April. In that suit, the tribe says the defendants used a computer services company and a series of phony invoices to defraud the tribe of more than $4-million.

    In a second suit, this one filed in federal court in Miami last year, the tribe claimed Billie and Cox oversaw an illegal stock manipulation scheme that drained the Seminole treasury of $20-million.

    The federal suit alleges Billie illegally authorized Cox to invest $30-million with a broker who was Cox's old Army buddy at Raymond James & Associates in Coral Gables. The suit also asserts that Billie and Cox embezzled tribal funds by writing $2.7-million on the Raymond James account and channeling the money to Virtual Data, an offshore company whose president was Wisher.

    The grand jury indictments allege that Cox issued and signed three checks from the Raymond James account totaling $2.77-million and made payable to Virtual Data. The Seminole Tribal Council did not approve the three checks and the tribe received nothing of value for the money, according to court papers.

    Instead, the money was deposited into Virtual Data's bank account, with the defendants then wiring $2.58-million of it to a Belize account in the name of Global Solutions, documents show. Global Solutions is the name of the company used by Wisher and Cox to purchase the Legends Hotel in Managua.

    Cox and Wisher later created a series of phony invoices for computer services and software to conceal their conspiracy to embezzle tribal funds, court papers say.

    Crumpton, a general contractor who was paid $83,720 for $80-an-hour work done at the Legends, is also accused of making false statements to federal investigators. In an interview with the FBI, Crumpton denied having any knowledge of Virtual Data. But records show he helped incorporate the company, served as the firm's secretary and handled banking business for Virtual Data at a Broward County bank.

    The indictments charge that the criminal activity took place beginning in about March 2000, after Cox was handpicked by Billie to run the day-to-day operations of the 2,800-member Seminole Tribe.

    Cox worked at several small-town police departments in Georgia until his state certification was revoked for lying to superiors and leaking a confidential exam to police cadets he was teaching. Married to a Seminole, Cox then took a job drug-testing urine samples for the tribe's personnel department before moving up to the $175,000-a-year operations position.

    Cox cemented his power with threats to fire those who went over his head, according to records, and quickly engineered tribal deals that made him wealthy. In negotiating the $410-million contract for Hard Rock Cafe casinos on reservations in Tampa and Hollywood, Cox secured a $500,000 commission from the Cordish Co., a Baltimore casino developer. He also set up a company which won the exclusive right to develop Hard Rock cafes in Latin America.

    Questions about those deals, rumors of misappropriated money flowing to Nicaragua and the presence of FBI agents in tribal council meetings foretold Cox's ouster. The council fired him on May 10, 2001, and just days later voted to suspend Billie indefinitely.

    Billie was thrown off the council pending the outcome of a special audit of tribal finances, still continuing, and a sexual harassment suit filed by Cox's predecessor, Christine O'Donnell. O'Donnell claims Billie got her pregnant, forced her to get an abortion, fired her, then paid her off with $100,000 worth of phony overtime.

    The only other person charged in the federal investigation so far is Billie's former pilot, Charles Kirkpatrick. Originally slated to be a grand jury witness, Kirkpatrick withdrew his plea and is now serving a 13-month sentence in Montgomery, Ala., for tax evasion.

    Kirkpatrick was charged with failing to report $619,000 he made on tribal airplane deals. In a prison interview in April, Kirkpatrick told the St. Petersburg Times that federal agents wanted him to tell a grand jury about cuts of the $619,000 he gave Billie.

    Kirkpatrick said Billie always asked, "Are we going to be taken care of?" and Kirkpatrick always paid, saying he considered the cash payments to be gifts.

    -- Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at testerman@sptimes.com

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