AP The Wire
Half a billion dollars a year is pouring into the Seminoles' casinos, but some people are profiting much more than others.
While every Seminole now is getting handsome dividends from gambling revenues, millions in federal aid continue to go to the tribe.
As Seminole chairman, James Billie heads a multi-million-dollar corporation. "Throw me in a damn ditch, and I'll make sure money comes in to the tribe."
By BRAD GOLDSTEIN and JEFF TESTERMAN
Times Staff Writers
HOLLYWOOD -- Gamblers walking into the Seminole casino in this Fort Lauderdale suburb can't miss the life-sized mural of James E. Billie, his arm outstretched like a Moses delivering his people to the promised land.
His face adorns a packet of spices called Seminole Swamp Seasoning -- a concoction of salt, pepper and secret ingredients produced in a plant outside Baltimore. Adds flavor to "anything that flies, walks, swims, crawls or grows in the ground," the package says.
Television viewers may have caught a glimpse of him gazing up at the contestants from the judges' box in last year's Miss Universe pageant in Miami.
James Billie -- infantryman, alligator wrestler, lawn-care worker, hairdresser, country music singer -- has become somebody.
He is in charge of a business empire with annual revenues of a half-billion dollars. Officially, he is chairman of the Seminole tribe, but everyone calls him "Chief," a title he first adopted for his stage act.
Billie rules like a benevolent dictator. He bails out tribal members who get arrested, treats the tribe's newspaper as "part of my weapons," forgives tribal loans to those he favors if they can't repay.
He drives a luxury Mercedes, owns a 47-foot yacht. And he has unabashedly used the tribe's gambling millions to indulge his love of flying -- $9-million for a Falcon 50 jet; several million more for three helicopters he often uses to travel from his home in the Everglades to tribal headquarters in Hollywood; and more to pay for two pilots, hangars, and an airstrip with night-landing lights.
In a free-wheeling interview with the Times, the 53-year-old Billie portrayed himself as a street fighter who enjoys the trappings of a Fortune 500 CEO. He was blunt and profane, sometimes disarmingly so.
"I'm probably one of the highest-paid son of a bitches in the tribe," Billie said when asked how much he makes, adding "a couple of hundred-thousand" a year.
On the tribe's newfound fortune, he said: "It's wonderful to have it but, Jesus, I'm not quite sure how to handle it. I was never a college-educated administrator, I was never college-educated at this. I am basically a self-taught money-maker."
He told stories that illustrated both an impressive clout in the world at large and a mischievous sense of how to use it.
When one of President Clinton's campaign fund-raisers, Terence McAuliffe, came knocking for a donation, Billie told him he would have to wrestle an alligator first. McAuliffe did, and posed with his hands on the gator's snout for a photograph that was published in George magazine.
Billie also told a campaign donation story about U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass. Billie said he made Kennedy, dressed in a suit and "those wing shoes," ride a bull for his donation.
The scion of America's most famous political family took off his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves and straddled the bull.
"That son of a bitch got on with no spurs," Billie said. "He stayed on almost eight seconds. I can't do it."
(A spokeswoman for Kennedy's office later denied the story. "The congressman never rode a bull for a donation," said Amy Simmons. "He doesn't wear wing tips.")
Five times Billie has stood for election as the tribe's chairman, and five times he has won. He's in it for life, he says, and doesn't intend to ever lose.
"If I'm the king bull right now, I'll fight for my position. The young bucks got to just show it and win," Billie said. "And I'll respect 'em for it then. Previous people, though, they all stepped down. I don't know for what reason -- but I'm, I never did."
©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.