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    Chief's hold on Seminoles is slipping

    James Billie, who led the Seminole Tribe of Florida to prosperity, faces open dissent over his leadership and business deals. And the FBI also is investigating.

    By JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


    Seminole Chief James E. Billie once enjoyed unwavering support from the tribe he has led for a generation.

    No more.

    photo
    [Times file photo: Mike Pease]
    James Billie, 57, has long been the public face of the Seminole tribe.
    Billie, the colorful songwriter and alligator wrestler who led the Seminole Tribe of Florida to new levels of prosperity as its elected chairman, has seen his political power erode in recent weeks in the face of a federal investigation.

    The FBI has been quietly investigating the tribe for more than a year. Now, FBI agents have made their presence known in Seminole country, fueling dissent within the tribe.

    "Our chairman has just been thumbing his nose at our ancestors who built this tribe," said Erica Deitz, 27, who works in the tribe's education department. "We were kept in the dark about everything, and we didn't know anything that was going on until we began to see the FBI in our meetings."

    In a tight-knit, 2,800-member tribe where dissent is rare, tribal members such as Deitz are standing up and questioning their leaders in pointed, public ways.

    In the past month, tribal members have held community meetings about the tribe's little-known investment of millions of dollars in a potentially risky cattle ranch in Nicaragua.

    Questions also were raised about a $400-million plan to build Hard Rock Cafe hotel-casinos on tribal land in Hollywood and Tampa.

    Billie's hand-picked administrator helped negotiate the Hard Rock deal and pocketed $500,000 from the developers. He then cut a secret deal to open his own Hard Rock restaurant in Nicaragua.

    That's a clear conflict of interest, according to the tribe's general counsel.

    The elected Tribal Council, which rarely challenges Billie, has now joined the dissenters, rejecting the chief's plan to purchase a new $50-million corporate jet. The tribal newspaper Billie published questioned the decision in an editorial.

    Last week, the Tribal Council took over the newspaper and fired Billie's top assistants. It was a serious blow to Billie, who has called the newspaper one of his political weapons.

    Adding to Billie's concerns: a sexual harassment claim by the tribe's former administration director accusing him of forcing her to have an abortion. She is now banned from reservation land.

    Billie, 57, has long been the public face of the Seminole tribe. The former Vietnam veteran is charming, brash, profane and outspoken.

    He has challenged Florida governors with an ambitious plan to expand casino gambling, which funds 95 percent of the tribe's budget.

    He is a staunch advocate of preserving Seminole culture, flying around the state singing his own songs.

    Last year, Billie lost a finger to an alligator he was wrestling at the tribe's Billie Swamp Safari tourist attraction in the Big Cypress Swamp. He preserved the finger in a bottle and showed it off at a music festival in Dade City last month.

    Billie is used to getting his way, even with gators.

    But the FBI may be his biggest match yet.

    Robert Saunooke, a Cherokee lawyer hired recently to represent Billie's interests and act as his spokesman, said the FBI presence is ubiquitous.

    "The FBI sits in on our community meetings, they go to our council meetings, they attend our Gaming Commission meetings," Saunooke said.

    Billie is clearly the focus of the investigation, Saunooke said. The chairman has committed no wrongdoing, he said.

    "I've looked at everything," Saunooke said. "And there's nothing there."

    Exactly what the FBI is looking at is unclear, but the focus appears to be on what happens to the millions of dollars a year generated at the tribe's five casinos, including one in Tampa. Areas of inquiry include money laundering, skimming and income tax evasion.

    Tribal members and tribal employees, like all U.S. citizens, are subject to federal income taxes. One former tribal employee was charged earlier this month with making a false statement on a tax return. The prosecutor in that case is also head of the federal investigation of Billie.

    Saunooke contends Billie is in the FBI's sights because "he's the one who bucks the system."

    Saunooke said the FBI has been after Billie since 1983, when he was accused of killing an endangered Florida panther. Arguing he needed to kill the panther to become a medicine man, Billie was acquitted.

    That case only raised Billie's standing within the tribe, proud that it never surrendered to the U.S. government despite years of warfare and the infamous Trail of Tears.

    Billie's clout within the tribe was so strong he managed to assemble a small air force of planes and helicopters, including a jet once owned by Ferdinand Marcos. He sold that jet and bought a bigger one, a Gulfstream IV once owned by Jordan's King Hussein.

    But in one of the first signs of Billie's eroding political clout, four council members last month balked at his plan to borrow $50-million for a new Gulfstream V, a 96-foot-long, 19-passenger jet capable of flying across the United States and back without refueling.

    Billie said canceling the contract could cost the tribe a $2-million penalty. He lost anyway, 4-1.

    Losing a weapon

    In the insular world of the Seminoles, Billie's newspaper is a primary source of information for a tribe scattered across several counties.

    Tribal members complain they have been unaware of many aspects of the tribe's business affairs, which provide a $2,000 monthly stipend to every tribal member.

    Billie has been the publisher of the Seminole Tribune for years, and his top assistants have provided a loyal defense of his political interests. Four years ago he called the Tribune "part of my weapons."

    Last week, the Tribal Council took it away.

    Tribal general counsel Jim Shore helped orchestrate the council's takeover of the Tribune. The council also ousted Tribune writers Peter Gallagher and Charles Flowers, business manager Dan McDonald and columnist Raiford Starke, all non-Seminoles.

    The council then reinstated Virginia Mitchell as editor-in-chief. The 16-year employee of the tribal communications department left in January. Mitchell voiced complaints about Gallagher and McDonald and their "special arrangements" with the chairman as early as August 1999, according to a memo Mitchell wrote to Billie.

    Mitchell complained that the integrity of the newspaper was being compromised "to satisfy the greed of non-Indians who prey on the financial stability of the Seminole Tribe."

    She specifically referred to Gallagher, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter who still lives in St. Petersburg. Gallagher would fly to work in Hollywood, stay in a hotel, rent a car and collect a per diem -- all on the tribe's expense account, she said.

    Saunooke called the council members who took over the newspaper "a fickle bunch" who "do things by vendetta."

    Four of the five council members -- all but Billie -- are running for re-election next month.

    "It could be an election ploy," Saunooke said.

    Gallagher said he felt he had been fired for doing his job.

    "Any society that guts its newspaper, it's a sign of impending tyranny or doom," he said. "That's been true all through history."

    Questions about Nicaragua

    One story Billie's newspaper never reported until tribal members questioned it recently concerns the tribe's investments in Nicaragua.

    The Seminoles own one of the largest cattle operations in the United States but have struggled to make a profit in the business.

    Yet more than a year ago, the tribe quietly spent $2.4-million on 6,000 acres near Managua and about $1-million for 3,000 head of cattle.

    If the tribe can't make money in Florida, why invest more in Nicaragua?

    Billie's government operations manager, Tim Cox, said a Nicaraguan ranch made sense because of cheap labor and land costs.

    The investment returned a $26,000 profit last year, Saunooke said.

    Tribal members attending recent community meetings have raised questions about the wisdom of the Nicaraguan operation.

    Deitz said tribal members are concerned about the risk of investing in "a third-world nation."

    "It's a scary situation," she said. "We're out on a limb down there."

    A sexual harassment charge

    Another problem for Billie is an explosive sexual harassment allegation.

    Chris O'Donnell, the tribe's former director of administration, says that Billie forced her to have an abortion. O'Donnell, 39, left her $100,000-a-year job earlier this year and hired an attorney.

    Miami lawyer Andrew Hall filed a demand letter with Billie but was rebuffed. He now says he will sue.

    Two weeks ago, tribal police served papers on O'Donnell banning her from reservation land.

    Saunooke, who called the claim frivolous, said O'Donnell was banned because she was talking to tribal members and "creating a hostile atmosphere."

    With Billie's legal and political problems mounting, the federal investigation is heating up.

    Last year, a lawyer's files that included allegations of cash being shipped to an offshore casino were subpoenaed. Recently, the FBI interviewed O'Donnell about her allegations.

    Last week, as the Tribal Council voted in a special meeting to take over the newspaper, two FBI agents were sitting in the audience.

    All the controversy is roiling the tribe.

    "I'd say a majority of our people are upset about what's going on," Deitz said. "We are all shareholders and we don't want to see our money just going into somebody else's pocket."

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