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Woman sues tribal chief over sex acts

By JEFF TESTERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2001


HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- A fired employee of the Seminole Tribe on Thursday accused the tribal chairman of getting her pregnant, forcing her to have an abortion, then firing her and arranging to pay her $100,000 in phony sick leave.

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- A fired employee of the Seminole Tribe on Thursday accused the tribal chairman of getting her pregnant, forcing her to have an abortion, then firing her and arranging to pay her $100,000 in phony sick leave.

Christine O'Donnell, 39, sued in Miami federal court, accusing Seminole Chief James Billie of sex discrimination, violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and inflicting emotional distress.

"This lawsuit represents the effort by one woman to stand up and demand the laws of the United States be applied to an individual who is attempting to shield himself with the cloak of sovereign immunity because he is the chief of the Seminole Tribe," said O'Donnell's lawyer, Andrew C. Hall.

Sovereign immunity gives the tribe status as a nation and immunity from certain legal challenges. It also grants the tribe responsibility for its own laws.

O'Donnell, who is not a tribal member, worked for the tribe from 1982 until 2000. She started as administrative assistant for the executive administrator and eventually rose to director of administration. Billie, 57, was her direct supervisor, the suit said.

Billie would coerce the tribe's female employees into having sex with him, the suit alleges. Because of sovereign immunity, the tribe "elected to consciously ignore its chairman's sexual misadventures and enacted no laws to protect its employees from this misconduct," according to the suit.

Billie is the elected chairman of a five-person tribal council that oversees five Seminole reservations in Florida, including one in Tampa. He could not be reached Thursday, but his office's former attorney, Robert Saunooke, has called the claim by O'Donnell "frivolous."

O'Donnell, who was paid $100,000 a year as the tribe's director of administration, believed having sex with Billie was a condition of her employment, the suit contends.

Their sexual relationship began in 1985 and continued for 15 years, with sex "on demand" in Billie's office, O'Donnell's office, in their cars, and even in the stairwell by the tribe's helicopter pad, according to the suit.

In July 2000, O'Donnell alleges, Billie required her to accompany him, his wife and daughter to New York City. They had unprotected sex on that trip in a hotel room across the hall from where Billie's daughter was sleeping, the suit alleges. O'Donnell discovered she was pregnant a month later.

Billie demanded she get an abortion or quit because "the baby would look like him (and) dire political consequences would follow" if she stayed and had the baby, the suit said. Billie gave O'Donnell $5,000 to pay for the abortion. He also arranged for the tribe to pay her $20,000 to pay off her credit cards, the suit claims.

After getting the abortion, she returned to work but her work environment became hostile, the suit alleges. She was fired in November, the suit said.

O'Donnell's final paycheck included $100,000 in sick leave, the equivalent of 345 days of leave she did not accumulate, the suit alleges.

The check was mailed to her by Tim Cox, the tribe's operations manager, who stated that the money was "to show our gratitude."

Cox, who has been under pressure in recent weeks for a secret hotel deal in Nicaragua, resigned his $170,000 job Thursday.

O'Donnell was banned from Seminole reservation land last month after being served papers by the Seminole Department of Law Enforcement.

She has been unable to find comparable work "and has suffered intense emotional distress," the suit said.

Billie is also the target of a federal investigation into corruption allegations.

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