Seminole chief files lawsuit to regain Tribal Council post
By JEFF TESTERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- James E. Billie, the embattled Seminole chief suspended by the Tribal Council two weeks ago, has sued in federal court to be reinstated as tribal chairman.
In a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Palm Beach County, Billie claims four elected Tribal Council members violated his constitutional rights and denied him due process when they voted to suspend him indefinitely and take him off the tribal payroll.
In ousting the chairman on May 24, the council accused Billie of misconduct and "gross neglect of duty," citing a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by former tribal administrator Christine O'Donnell.
In her suit, O'Donnell, 39, alleges that Billie got her pregnant, forced her to get an abortion, fired her, then misappropriated tribal funds to pay her off with $100,000 worth of phony unused sick leave.
The council also pointed to behavior by Billie outlined in unspecified "newspaper reports" which "adversely reflects upon the dignity of the tribe." Billie, the six-term leader who has led the Seminoles since 1979, was suspended until the O'Donnell suit is resolved and until a special outside audit of tribal spending is complete.
In his suit, Billie says an elected official can be removed only after being given a statement of all charges at least 10 days before a vote, and must be afforded an opportunity to respond. Billie says he was provided no notice, no list of charges, no chance to reply and "has essentially been convicted" by the Tribal Council.
"This lawsuit is not merely to establish the rights of James Billie but to uphold the rights of every tribal member under the tribal constitution and bylaws," said Alan C. Kauffman, Billie's Boca Raton attorney.
Named as defendants in the suit are the Seminole Tribe, council members Mitchell Cypress, David Cypress, Jack Smith Jr. and Max Osceola, and Seminole general counsel Jim Shore.
Shore, who the suit says prepared the resolution suspending Billie and advised the council it was legal, said Wednesday he had not received a copy of the suit.
Told of its contents by a reporter, Shore said he believed a federal court likely would say it "does not have jurisdiction over internal matters of the tribe."
Billie, 57, is a songwriter, folk singer and alligator wrestler credited with improving the tribe's prospects over the last two decades by boosting gambling revenues and diversifying the Seminole economy. Tax-free profits from five Seminole bingo halls allow the tribe to pay all 2,800 tribal members a monthly dividend of $2,000.
The tribe is in talks with the U.S. Interior Department to gain permission to offer full Las Vegas-style gambling, and has $400-million plans to build Hard Rock Cafe hotel-casinos in Hollywood and Tampa.
Another project to build an upscale hotel on tribal land, this one in Tallahassee, was announced this week. Developer and attorney Jack Skelding said an 80-plus-room boutique hotel would be built on downtown land the Seminoles purchased for $3.5-million.
But Billie is also at the center of a months-long federal investigation being conducted by the FBI, IRS and Interior Department.
Agents have questioned O'Donnell about Billie and the $100,000 payoff she says she received.
They have interviewed former Seminole gift shop employee Maria Santiago, 23, about gifts Billie gave her, including diamond jewelry, a new Dodge pickup truck, a Volkswagen, $1,100-a-month rent payments, Rolex watches, college tuition and trips to New York, Las Vegas and Nicaragua aboard the tribe's corporate jet.
Federal prosecutors also have obtained an agreement from Billie's former pilot, Charles Kirkpatrick, to testify before a grand jury about "theft, embezzlement and fraud" involving the Seminole tribe and its businesses, according to court papers.
With FBI agents in attendance at most Tribal Council meetings in recent weeks, the council not only removed Billie from power, but also fired many top officials in his administration, including his office's attorney, Robert Saunooke, his handpicked operations manager, Tim Cox, and controller, Hugh Chang-Alloy.
- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire