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    Tribe's suspended chairman exerted pressure in letters

    By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 13, 2003

    TAMPA -- Using an official Seminole Tribe letterhead and claiming he was still in charge of tribal affairs, suspended Seminole Chairman James E. Billie attempted to squelch a federal inquiry into a secret casino deal that could cost the tribe more than $200-million.

    In letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission, Billie asked that the federal agencies drop the tribe's request for a review of the lease of the Coconut Creek Casino, an agreement engineered by Billie that the tribe now says may be illegal.

    Billie also sent a letter to tribal attorney Donald Orlovsky warning him to settle litigation involving the Coconut Creek lease or be fired. Billie told Orlovsky he had taken steps to keep the federal agencies from looking into the Coconut Creek deal.

    "I have spent the better part of two decades fighting the state and the federal government to build our gaming enterprises and provide for the future of the Seminole Tribe," Billie wrote in a Jan. 9 letter to Orlovsky. "And I cannot understand how anybody could voluntarily invite the federal government to investigate any aspect of our gaming operations."

    Orlovsky filed Billie's letters this week in the federal civil case involving the Coconut Creek lease, along with papers saying Billie's actions violated tribal law.

    That filing comes as the five-member tribal council considers the permanent removal of Billie as Seminole chairman, a post he has held since 1979. At a closed hearing at tribal headquarters in Hollywood today, Billie is scheduled to offer his defense to charges that he repeatedly acted against the best interests of the tribe.

    Suspended from his $312,000-a-year job in May 2001, Billie now is accused of overseeing a secret plan to divert $2.77-million in tribal funds to Belize and Nicaragua to set up an offshore Internet gambling site. The tribal council also alleges that Billie lied about funneling cash into a Nicaraguan hotel venture and loaned former tribal administrator Tim Cox and a partner $80,000 to finance a court fight against the tribe for control of the hotel.

    In a Feb. 10 letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Seminole general counsel Jim Shore said Billie's letters aimed at derailing a federal review of the Coconut Creek lease "violate the terms of his suspension by the tribal council."

    The Coconut Creek controversy began in July of last year, when the tribe began withholding $1.7-million monthly lease payments to Coconut Creek Gaming, the partnership that built the 24,000-square-foot casino in Broward County in return for a 10-year lease.

    The partnership, headed by Maitland developer Alan H. Ginsburg, spent $20-million to build the casino, but could make huge profits thanks to the lease negotiated by Billie. The contract calls for the tribe to pay back not just the $20-million, but 35 percent of net casino revenues that could bring Ginsburg's group $200-million over 10 years.

    Ginsburg's group sued, claiming the tribe was in disarray because of Billie's suspension.

    The tribe countered with a claim that the casino lease should be voided because it never received the endorsement of federal regulators. The tribe then asked the National Indian Gaming Commission to review the contract, particularly a provision that facilitated a secret $8-million loan to a company run by a friend of Billie's.

    The company that got the $8-million was Coconut Chips, a corporation run by Illinois businessman and steakhouse owner Gary Fears. The National Indian Gaming Commission now wants to examine the loan to Fears.

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