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    Chief's ex-pilot set to testify in inquiry

    By JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


    TAMPA -- Seminole Chief Jim Billie's former pilot has agreed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating corruption within the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

    The pilot, Charles H. Kirkpatrick, signed the agreement part of a plea deal with prosecutors in which he admits making a false statement on an income tax return.

    The plea agreement requires Kirkpatrick to testify about "the activities of any individuals involved in theft, embezzlement and fraud" involving the Seminole Tribe and its related businesses, according to court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale.

    Among the tribe's numerous businesses are five casinos, including one in Tampa. They account for more than 90 percent of the tribe's income.

    An Air Force veteran and former CIA employee, Kirkpatrick, 62, piloted Seminole aircraft for about five years before Billie fired him. Kirkpatrick also helped handle the purchase and sale of tribal aircraft, including the $9.62-million sale of the tribe's Falcon 50, once owned by former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos.

    Kirkpatrick's plea agreement, signed in September but not filed until last week, is the latest evidence of a 13-month-long federal investigation of the Seminoles.

    The intensifying investigation comes as Billie, 57, the five-term chairman of the tribe, faces new opposition by the elected Tribal Council, of which Billie is a member. On Thursday, the council voted 4-0 to fire a lawyer Billie hired late last year as his general counsel.

    The council also rejected an appeal by four tribal members fired last week after the tribal newspaper, the Seminole Tribune, was removed from Billie's control.

    The council took over the newspaper, which Billie had published since 1979. Billie did not attend Thursday's meeting or last week's council session.

    Meanwhile, a growing number of the tribe's 2,800 members are speaking about unpublicized expenditures of millions of dollars in a cattle farm in Nicaragua and a secret hotel deal there by Billie's tribal administrator, Timothy W. Cox.

    The presence of FBI agents at Tribal Council and community meetings has contributed to the erosion of Billie's political support.

    Whether Kirkpatrick's testimony involves Billie is unclear. Kirkpatrick declined to comment.

    Prosecutors have charged Kirkpatrick with making a false statement on a 1995 IRS return when he still was a tribal employee. The plea agreement says the government lost between $120,000 and $200,000.

    Kirkpatrick could face a $250,000 fine and three years behind bars, but could get a lesser sentence by testifying, court records show.

    Billie, who has run the tribe with undisputed authority, found his power eroded further Thursday with the Tribal Council's firing of Robert O. Saunooke, a Cherokee whom Billie hired as his own legal counsel. Billie had previously relied on Jim Shore, a Seminole and the tribe's longtime general counsel.

    The Council stated no reasons for the firing, which came just days after a St. Petersburg Times article in which Saunooke characterized council members as "a fickle bunch." He also criticized Shore as "a blind man who can't read anything."

    Saunooke, 36, already inspired ill feelings within his own tribe, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.

    Last fall, Saunooke represented two of Billie's business partners in a failed effort to open a bingo hall on reservation land in Cherokee County, N.C. The effort by the two partners, west Florida businessman James Chapman and Miami lawyer Martin Kalb, died when federal regulators refused to approve the bingo hall application without full tribal backing.

    Chapman was investigated by the Seminoles' own police department in 1995 when he and Billie were part of a company called Sandy Beach Productions. The background check showed Chapman had a lengthy arrest record involving auto theft, delivery of dangerous drugs, extortion and fraud.

    Chapman told the St. Petersburg Times that the Seminoles were not involved in the Cherokee plans. Saunooke said the Seminoles considered investing in the bingo hall, and flew Cox, the tribe's operations manager, to Cherokee in the tribe's corporate jet.

    The proposal divided the Cherokee tribe. Some envisioned a financial windfall. Others wondered about its backers and objected to a casino on Cherokee County land.

    Cherokee general counsel David Nash said tribal members ultimately turned their backs on Saunooke.

    "He isn't in good standing here," said Joe Martin, the Cherokee editor of One Feather, the tribal newspaper. After the bingo hall proposal, "the tribe sort of shunned him."

    - Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422.

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