2011-04-28 / Top News

CHIEF BILLIE’S QUIET COMEBACK

Larger-than-life Seminole moves to recapture his seat at the head of the tribe
BY BILL CORNWELL


Chairman of the Seminole Tribe James Billie speaking at a meeting in Tallahassee in the 1980s Chairman of the Seminole Tribe James Billie speaking at a meeting in Tallahassee in the 1980s From what is known of James Billie — the charismatic and vexingly erratic savant who presided as chairman (chief) of the Seminole Tribe of Florida from 1979 to 2001 — it’s doubtful that he would protest being compared to Moses.

Mr. Billie, like Moses, was spared certain death in infancy through the intervention of two women, and he would later in life have his own “burning bush” moment (which involved his vision of large-scale, legalized casino gambling). As with Moses, Mr. Billie led his people toward the Promised Land (financially speaking, in the case of the Seminoles), only to find that missteps made along the way would prove to be his undoing. And, yes, the 67-year-old former tribal chief has spent considerable time (10 years or so) wandering in a personal wilderness of his own making.

But while Moses only caught a glimpse of Canaan, Mr. Billie actually set foot in his Promised Land, only to be booted out by the tribal hierarchy.

Now, he wants back in, as evidenced by the fact he is running to reclaim the chairmanship of the Seminole Tribe.

Mr. Billie attempted to recapture past glory four years ago, but he was kept off the tribal ballot through technicalities involving his residence on the Brighton Reservation in Glades County. A couple of weeks ago, though, Mr. Billie was officially certified as a candidate for the tribal election to be held on May 8. S hould Mr. Billie prevail in his quixotic comeback bid (incumbent Mitchell Cypress is the favorite), then perhaps he is more Lazarus than Moses.

Mr. Billie may be the most widely known American Indian still living. Yet his name on the ballot has generated little attention outside of the tribe itself.

Indeed, the entire election has gone unnoticed off the reservations.

It is likely that Florida’s non-Seminole population does not fully appreciate the enormity of the tribe’s resources and power. This seeming ignorance and disinterest by outsiders suits the Hollywood-based Seminole leadership just fine, for the tribe’s Poo-Bahs apparently have little to say and no inclination to say it. None of the tribal leadership — including the chairman, the general counsel, the secretary-treasurer and the people in the payroll department — would deign to be interviewed for this article. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs was notably uncommunicative about anything relating to the election. Franklin Keel, the BIA regional director in Nashville, Tenn., would not speak and through an assistant referred Florida Weekly to the bureau’s Washington, D.C. office, where an official granted a desultory telephone interview before requesting that further questions be set down in writing. The official, Nedra Darling, then failed to respond to virtually all of the queries that were submitted. Officials of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida were similarly mute when queried about their Seminole brethren in general and James Billie in particular. In a nutshell, no one associated with the tribe — aside from its designated spokesman — wishes to be bothered with any of this election nonsense. Piercing this veil of Seminole silence is made even more difficult because the tribe is not required by law to release documents related to its administration. This includes any financial information concerning salaries and other compensation its leaders receive.


Left: The Seminole tribe purchased the Hard Rock franchise in 2006. Below: The Seminole Casino in Immokalee. 
COURTESY PHOTOS Left: The Seminole tribe purchased the Hard Rock franchise in 2006. Below: The Seminole Casino in Immokalee. COURTESY PHOTOS When Mr. Billie was forced from office in 2001, his annual salary was said to be roughly $315,000, which made him Florida’s highest-paid elected official at that time. Today, that figure reportedly hovers at $1 million, according to a source who requests anonymity.


Seminole life as portrayed on a souvenir postcard circa 1948. 
COURTESY PHOTOS Seminole life as portrayed on a souvenir postcard circa 1948. COURTESY PHOTOS “The tribe has no interest in disclosing (the chairman’s salary),” says Gary Bitner, the Seminoles’ chief spokesman.

Nor will Mr. Bitner discuss the monthly stipend that goes to every Florida Seminole (there are some 3,300 Seminoles living on and off reservations) as a result of the tribe’s enormous gaming revenues. Estimates published within the last five years placed the monthly payment at $10,000 per person. A member of the tribe, who also requests anonymity, says the stipend now is up to “about $14,000 per person.” That means a Seminole household of five people annually collects somewhere in the neighborhood of $840,000 — for doing absolutely nothing in return — from revenue furnished mostly by non-Indian gamblers at the tribe’s seven casinos, which are located in Tampa, Hollywood, Brighton, Big Cypress, Immokalee and Coconut Creek.


Chief Billie put out an album in 1986 followed by a 20th anniversary CD release in 2006. Chief Billie put out an album in 1986 followed by a 20th anniversary CD release in 2006. Indian gaming in Florida generated nearly $2 billion in revenues in 2009 (the latest year for which figures are available), according to Indian Gaming

Industry Report. The Miccosukee Tribe operates a small casino in Miami, but, as The Miami Herald observed, “the Florida (gaming) numbers are primarily a reflection of the Seminole tribe.”

While both Indian and commercial gaming facilities are in decline elsewhere, the Seminoles’ Florida operations experienced a 10 percent increase in revenues in 2009, the report stated. This came after an 18 percent increase in 2008.

Indicative of the Seminole’s highrolling ways was their purchase in 2006 of the Hard Rock franchise for $965 million. In addition to two Hard Rock casinos on Seminole reservations, the acquisition included 124 Hard Rock cafes in 45 countries, five hotels, two live performance venues and the Hard Rock brand name. Hard Rock even threw in a bustier worn by Madonna, which was part of its enormous collection of rock memorabilia.

Last year, the state of Florida approved a renegotiated gaming compact with the Seminoles. The compact gives the tribe exclusive rights to table games at some of its casinos and allows the playing of slots at all casinos. In exchange for these exclusive franchises, the Seminoles agreed to pay the state $1.2 billion over five years.

Wealth and misery

T he tribe’s wealth may be mind-boggling, but so are the problems it has faced both during the reign of Mr. Billie and in the 10 years hence. Allegations of mismanagement of funds and extravagant living by senior tribal officials have generated scores of sensational headlines through the years. There was even a mob-style assassination attempt made on the tribe’s top in-house attorney. The botched hit job was widely seeneen both by Seminoles and law enforcement officialsficials as a part of intra-tribalal feudto feuding, possibly linked to Mr. Billie, although that theoand theory was never proved and charges never brought,ught, according to numerousrous press reports at the time.

Despite their much-h-trumexpecof trumpeted affluence, life expectancy for members of the tribe is shockingly lowow and plummeting at an alarminglarming rate.

The South Florida Sun- Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale looked into the issue of Seminole health in 2008 and found that over the preceding 10 years, the life expectancy for a member of the tribe had dropped from 59.7 years to 48.5 years. (Life expectancy for Floridians as a whole is 77.5 years). According to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, life expectancy nationally for Native Americans is about 67 years for men and 72 years for women.

The newspaper examined the deaths of the 17 tribal members who passed away during the first eight months of 2008, and found that 11 of the deaths were linked to alcohol or drug use. The daughter of a member of the Tribal Council was one of the fatalities, having perished in an alcohol-related automobile accident.

According to the tribe’s website, the Seminole Health Department seeks to “provide quality healthcare and promote wellness within the communities to ensure that all individuals reach their health potential.”

It seems, however, that not only are Seminoles not reaching “their health potential,” few are surviving past middle age.

How much of a difference next month’s election will make in the life of the average Seminole is open to debate. But the presence of James Billie on the ballot alone makes the contest notable.

In many ways, Mr. Billie’s remarkably checkered life is a metaphor for the last 30 or so years of Seminole history.

Living legend

M r. Billie was born 67 years ago this month in a traditional Seminole chickee hut (an open-sided structure with a raised floor and thatched roof) located behind the Chimpanzee Farm, a roadside attraction in Dania where his mother, a full-blooded Seminole, worked. Mr. Billie’s father was white and of Irish extraction. He served in the Navy and left for duty before Mr. Billie’s birth, never to return.

This commingling of white and Seminole bloodlines rendered him inferior in the eyes of many tribal members. The old medicine man who attended Mr. Billie’s birth wanted to deal with this circumstance in the traditional way, which involved stuffing mud into the mouths of mixed-blood newborns and leaving them to die in the wilds of the Everglades.

The medicine man finally backed down on this act of infanticide only after Mr. Billie’s mother and another Seminole womanwoma threatened to go to the white superintendentsuper of their reservation ervation if the bbaby was harmed.

Mr. Billie, who declined through an intermediary repeated requests for an interview because he believes speaking about his candidacy might “jinx” his campaign, would later look back on his beginning and see it as an omen.

“I was born in a zoo,” he said in an interview in 2000 that is now part of the Seminole Oral History Collection at the University of Florida. “It was a chimpanzee farm. Little did I realize that it was (a forecast) of my forte in tourism.”

Early on, Mr. Billie sensed that employment options and opportunities were few for Seminoles, and those that were available were often demeaning.

“You can act like a comedian or wrestle an alligator or show a snake and people will pay for it,” he recalled in the 2000 interview.

Mr. Billie, seeking to survive, became somewhat famous for his prowess wrestling gators, but he was far too ambitious to stop at that.

He graduated from high school in 1964. Two years later, he joined the Army and was shipped to Vietnam, where he served two tours. Mr. Billie was part of the Army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols and specialized in dangerous missions deep into enemy territory.

After his discharge, Mr. Billie, restless and edgy, went back to alligator wrestling and dabbled in odd jobs of all sorts.

Mr. Billie in 1979 decided to seek the tribe’s chairmanship and campaigned on a platform of improving health care and living conditions.

As chairman, Mr. Billie used his flair for promotion to gain attention both for himself and his tribe. Well-spoken and street smart, he put himself in the public eye in a way that no chairman before or since has matched.

He flew tribal airplanes and helicopters. He performed as a musician. He earned a reputation as a womanizer, and he rarely missed an opportunity to speak his mind. Mr. Billie was charged with killing a male Florida panther in 1983 — something he did not dispute — but he ultimately beat the charge. Mr. Billie’s defense was that the killing of the panther was a ritual that was essential to his becoming a medicine man, and that prosecutors also failed to prove conclusively that the cat he shot was a Florida panther and not one of another species.

Had he continued on in this fashion, Mr. Billie might have ultimately been dismissed as little more than a flamboyant diversion. But he was more than that. Far more. Mr. Billie had a grand plan, and it involved, ultimately, wringing vast amounts of cash from non-Indians.

“He told me that he couldn’t make the white man pay in blood,” says Patrick Geraghty, an attorney in Fort Myers who represented Mr. Billie in some of the charges that grew out of the Florida panther case, “but he could make him pay in money. He was very talented in that way and very articulate. He had great business sense.”

In 1977, prior to Mr. Billie’s ascension, asceni theth SeminolesS i l hadhd useddthitheir ddesignation as a sovereign nation, which had been affirmed by an agreement with the United States government in 1957, to open “smoke shops” that sold cigarettes at rock-bottom prices. The tribe could offer huge discounts because it was exempt from tobacco taxes. It was the Seminoles’ first stab at making money from its status as a federally recognized sovereign entity.

Two years later, Mr. Billie oversaw the opening of the tribe’s first largestakes bingo parlor in Hollywood. Then, through a series of lawsuits in federal court that dragged on through the early 1980s and into the late 1990s, the tribe expanded and defined the limits of Indian gambling in America. The Seminoles opened casinos at their Hollywood and Tampa reservations in 2000, and James Billie was off and running.

Rise to obscurity

M r. Billie struck a deal to develop two Hard Rock casinos in 2000, but less than a year later, he found himself the target of a federal grand jury investigating organized crime. By this time he had already run afoul of the National Indian Gaming Commission, which had imposed fines of nearly $6.5 million on the tribe during Mr. Billie’s tenure. The fines were levied because of illegal contracts afforded certain vendors.

As the controversies mounted, Mr. Billie’s eccentricities and his taste for swank material possessions like aircraft (the tribe blocked him from buying a $50 million Gulfstream jet, and he had three helicopters at his disposal) and a yacht began to wear thin with elements within the tribe. Additionally, Mr. Billie was never fully accepted by some Seminoles because of his mixed bloodline.

“There were many Seminoles who never trusted him simply because he was not full-blooded,” contends one of Mr. Billie’s longtime friends. “You can call it bigotry or whatever you like, but there is no denying that fact.”

In the end, though, Mr. Billie himself handed his enemies the cudgel they needed to beat him into submission. Mr. Billie, who was divorced, was sued by a former tribal employee, Christine O’Donnell, who accused him of sexual harassment. She further claimed that she had become pregnant by Mr. Billie, who, by her account, had forced her to have an abortion. Ms. O’Donnell alleged that Mr. Billie fiddled with pay records in order to provide her with $100,000 in hush money, according to news accounts.

In May 2001, Mr. Billie was suspended without pay. Not long thereafter, the suspension was upgraded (or downgraded, depending on your perspective) to outright termination.

Things got even nastier in January 2002 when James Shore, the tribe’s top lawyer and the first Seminole to earn a law degree, was the target of an assassination attempt at his home in Hollywood.

Mr. Shore, who was left blind as a result of an automobile accident in 1970, was shot several times but survived. Hollywood police said the lawyer had been “targeted.”

Because of his blindness, Mr. Shore could provide few details of the incident, but it was widely noted in news accounts that he was cooperating with a federal grand jury that was said to be investigating the deposed Mr. Billie.

Suspicion concerning Mr. Billie grew greater when a videotape of a tribal meeting held a couple of months earlier showed the ousted chairman making derogatory remarks about Mr. Shore and acknowledging that he had considered violence against his enemies.

“The first thing I wanted to do was get me a machine gun and kill ‘em down, mow ‘em all down,” he said. “But you can’t do that. This is the United St aIStates. We’re not exactly the mafia.”

Investigators never released any evidence den linking Mr. Billie to the shooting, and the case remains unsolved. Mr. Billie lie has denied from the outset having any involvement in or prior knowledge of the attempt on Mr. Shore’s life.

(Mr. Shore still serves as the Seminole no general counsel. He declined to be interviewed.)

Tribal politics

If anyone thought the dismissal of James Billie would mark the end of Seminoles’ leadership problems, they were sadly mistaken.

“It seems very strange to me that most people seemed to quit caring about what is going on with the tribe after Billie left,” says Peter B. Gallagher, a St. Petersburg-based writer and musician who worked as Mr. Billie’s director of communications for 15 years.

Mr. Gallagher has a point. Mr. Billie’s high profile made him a lightning rod for the media, while his hunkereddown and tight-lipped successors quietly cruised under the radar. Recent years have seen a reversal of that trend.

David Cypress, brother of current Seminole Chairman Mitchell Cypress, resigned from the Tribal Council last year while under investigation for violations of the Indian Gaming Act. David Cypress was widely known for his extravagant expenditures, and in one year spent $28 million on his district, according to the South Florida Sun- Sentinel, which obtained a trove of Seminole documents.

Mitchell Cypress has frequently been criticized for leading a lavish lifestyle, but Nedra Darling of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, believes that many of the criticisms are out of line.

Ms. Darling concludes that Mr. Cypress is, essentially, the CEO of a large corporation and deserves the salary and lifestyle that other CEOs enjoy. Ms. Darling was asked in writing if she or anyone else at the BIA is privy to Mr. Cypress’ salary and compensation package, but she chose not to respond.

The Sun- Sentinel reported that Max Osceola Jr., a member of the tribal council who earns upwards of $400,000 for his work, owes the Internal Revenue Service more than $1 million in back taxes and that in a 2005 deposition given in a civil lawsuit he was asked “if he could spend tribal funds on a car, a boat, a house, vacations….”

“If I want to,” was Mr. Osceola’s response.

The National Indian Gaming Commission has determined that Mr. Osceola, who is up for re-election next month, ran up an $85,000 tab on his tribal American Express card for purchases that included jewelry, electronics and other personal items.

As if all of that isn’t enough, federal prosecutors and the IRS announced last year that they had begun an investigation into $2 million in payments the tribe made to vendors.

Also last year, two leading credit rating agencies (Fitch Ratings and S&P) downgraded their ratings on the Seminoles. The downgrades directly referenced gaming division bonds, which can be either taxable or tax-exempt. Citing a notice of violation issued against the tribe by the National Indian Gaming Commission, Fitch Ratings said the Seminoles have a “long track record of weak internal controls with respect to financial and accounting practices.” S&P placed the tribe on “credit watch with negative implications.” It extended this downgrade to Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment Inc. and Seminole Hard Rock International LLC, both of which are privately held.

While none of these shenanigans means that Mr. Billie, with his track record, could plausibly campaign as a reform candidate, it is quite likely that his mere return to the political scene is a considerable irritant to the powers that be.

But the Seminoles are not about to admit that.

In fact, Mr. Bitner, the tribal spokesman, says, without the slightest hint of irony in his voice, that he hasn’t heard anyone discuss Mr. Billie’s candidacy at all.

Has Mr. Billie’s re-emergence sparked a newfound interest in Seminole politics? “I wouldn’t know about that,” responds Mr. Bitner. “I can’t comment on that.”

Mr. Gallagher says Mr. Billie has earned his keep since his ouster by building chickees and performing other forms of hard labor.

Despite the inglorious circumstances surrounding Mr. Billie’s dismissal, Mr. Gallagher insists his former boss remains unbowed and unbroken.

“He’s still the same guy he always was,” Mr. Gallagher says. “He’s funny, quick, cocky and proud. He’s not the sort of guy to go to a bar and sit with a beer and moan and complain. He’s always upbeat.”

If Mr. Billie loses, it will not be the worst thing to befall him. He has survived hair-raising missions that brought him face-to-face with the Viet Cong, and the scores of investigations and allegations that have dogged him for decades.

And we mustn’t forget the scars bestowed by all of those alligators he has wrestled. A gator claimed one of his fingers, and yet another took a substantial chunk from his buttocks — a wound that, according to Mr. Billie, came frighteningly close to relieving him of his “manhood.”

“Any white man who thinks he can get inside the mind of an Indian is fooling himself,” Mr. Gallagher says when asked to assess the possible outcome of next month’s election. ¦

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