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    Tribe's operations manager earns praise -- and criticism

    By JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


    TAMPA -- Timothy W. Cox has come a long way since leaving behind a checkered law enforcement career in Georgia to take a job with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

    Cox, who is married to a Seminole, started in the tribe's personnel department. Today he is the tribe's $170,000-a-year government operations manager.

    Considered a tireless worker and highly proficient in finance, Cox oversees dozens of tribal corporations and helped negotiate a deal to build Hard Rock Cafe hotel-casinos on Seminole land in Hollywood and Tampa.

    But Cox's secret dealmaking has prompted public questions at community meetings called by tribal members who question whose interests he represents.

    Last year, Cox pocketed $500,000 from the same development company with whom he had negotiated the tribe's Hard Rock deal.

    The money was for developing other Hard Rock properties for the tribe in Latin America.

    But Cox has cut his own Hard Rock deal there, and the tribe is getting only a small percentage.

    "It's a flat-out conflict of interest, any way you slice it," long-time tribal attorney Jim Shore told the Seminole Tribune.

    He told tribal members no Seminole money was involved.

    The tribe put up $200,000, said Robert Saunooke, the attorney for tribal chairman James E. Billie. That money is supposed to be repaid, he said.

    The controversy centers on the partially completed Legends Hotel in downtown Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Cox and tribal employee Dan Wisher borrowed to complete the $7-million building.

    A company Cox started then won the exclusive right earlier this month to develop a Hard Rock Live restaurant in the hotel. The deal also gives Cox's company the option to develop other Hard Rock properties in Latin America.

    His company: Seminole HR Americas.

    Cox told the Tribune he took the deal when the Tribal Council balked. The Tribal Council had approved the money Cox got from a subsidiary of the Cordish Co., the Baltimore developer hired to build the tribe's two Florida Hard Rock facilities.

    But it is not clear that the council knew how much Cox was getting -- or that he would secretly pursue his own projects.

    Shore, who is blind, told a recent Seminole community meeting that he was unaware of any disclosure by Cox or Wisher concerning the Legends Hotel and the Hard Rock restaurant in Managua.

    Saunooke dismissed Shore's criticism. "You're talking about a blind man who can't read anything," Saunooke said. "He doesn't like Tim Cox, so you can take what he says with a grain of salt."

    Shore could not be reached for comment.

    Saunooke said Cox and Wisher gave the tribe a 10 percent stake in the hotel deal.

    Cox keeps 93 percent of profits from other Hard Rock establishments in Latin America, Saunooke said. The tribe gets 7 percent. Saunooke said the arrangement makes sense because Cox and Wisher are taking the risks.

    "Nicaragua could blow up tomorrow and Tim and Dan would be out $7-million," he said.

    Wisher, 54, formerly the tribe's information systems consultant, has moved to Managua and taken a position in the tribe's Foreign Affairs Department, Saunooke said.

    Wisher, reached at the Legends Hotel in Managua, declined comment. Cox, 31, did not return several calls seeking comment.

    Cox worked for three small-town police departments in Georgia before going to work for the tribe, but experienced a number of problems. His Georgia law enforcement certification was revoked in 1997.

    Cox leaked a confidential exam to police cadets he was teaching, according to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, and was fired from one department for lying.

    Cox was caught taxiing voters to the polls to vote for a sheriff's candidate when he claimed had had to travel out of state for a military physical.

    Asked if the tribe knew of Cox's background, Saunooke replied, "if they are aware, they don't care, and if they aren't aware, they don't care any way. He's doing a good job now."

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