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By Chris Joseph
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Leon Braun just wanted to show off his latest enterprise to his friends that Sunday afternoon some 13 years ago. They were driving back to his home in Hollywood after attending a wedding in St. Petersburg. Then in his late 60s, Braun was an engineer, inventor, and venture capitalist; he was wearing all three hats for this project, a 285-acre fish farm leased from the Seminole Tribe of Florida on the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation in Glades County. Braun had long been intrigued with the idea of fish farming and was quite enthusiastic after speaking with the owners of U.S. Fish Corp. about investing in the operation. Most of the other two dozen investors were retired and, like Braun, veterans of World War II. Braun brought in other backers, including his friend Marty Oster, a retired Army colonel.
Braun had initially invested $50,000, but by the end of 1988, he and Oster had ponied up another $600,000 and assumed control of the company. The demand for fish by would-be buyers surpassed what the company could raise, and the future looked promising. When Braun arrived that Sunday at the farm, however, he discovered thousands of dead fish floating and lying ashore.
"I was completely taken aback," recalls Braun, now 80 years old. "I had no idea what was going on. I couldn't find anybody in the office. I didn't want to make a fuss in front of my wife and friends, so we drove home, and I went back the next day. That's what started the whole investigation." U.S. Fish sued the Seminoles in Broward County Circuit Court, claiming that the tribe knew about hidden defects in the pond that made it impossible to raise fish without extensive and expensive restoration. That case was transferred to federal court, where the judge threw it out, agreeing with the Seminole Tribe that it had sovereign immunity from the civil suit.
But Braun didn't let the matter drop. Claiming the tribe can't account for millions of dollars in federal aid it has received from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Braun filed a federal suit in 1998 under the False Claims Act, which allows private citizens to file fraud cases on behalf of the government. Since then, Braun has navigated a legal odyssey that's taken him to federal district court and the court of appeals. The case appeared dead when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review it. At each stage, he's been stymied by the tribe's sovereign immunity.
This summer, he refiled the case in federal court in Minnesota, a district that has been friendlier toward allowing False Claims Act suits against Indian tribes. The tribe's lawyers are arguing once again that the court does not have jurisdiction over the Seminoles, and their impatience with this dogged octogenarian is evident in a motion filed in September.
"It is clear that Mr. Braun's strategy is to continue to file claims throughout the United States against [the tribe] and its legally chartered tribal corporation until, at some point, a case which has already traveled a torturous route from the United States District Court to the Supreme Court and back will find a forum to hear the case beyond jurisdiction," the motion states. The attorneys are tempted to seek sanctions against Braun for exploiting the courts, they noted, "but it is harsh indeed to seek monetary sanctions from an elderly retiree who has little else to do with his time than to perpetuate what is little more than a personal battle."
"We thought it had ended here in Florida," says Allan M. Lerner, a Fort Lauderdale-based attorney who represents the tribe. "Obviously, we'd like to stop the litigation. We will not settle with an individual who we believe is filing these frivolous lawsuits."
Although the fish farm first led him to court, Braun says his dispute now goes far beyond the concerns of a few retired investors. Indian tribes receive billions of dollars in federal assistance and perhaps as much in gambling proceeds. Two agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior oversee the proper use of those funds. As federal judges have more broadly embraced the concept of sovereign immunity for tribes, however, the federal government has lost the powerful watchdog force of the False Claims Act. Braun describes such broad immunity as a license to steal from the federal government. Indeed, in all the years Braun has spent challenging the Seminole Tribe, the merits of his case have yet to be addressed.
"I'm pissed off," Braun fumes, "because the judges play with words and avoid the responsibility of making a decision."
During a Wednesday afternoon in late October, Leon Braun is wedged between his work and computer desks at his spacious home in the Emerald Hills area of Hollywood, just west of I-95. He rotates the chair to look through a manila folder of yellowed newspaper clippings, then swivels back slowly to look up the latest court pleading he's written. His bookshelves boast a blend of engineering, computer, and law books. Beside his copier sits a surfeit of three-ring binders containing court rules, BIA regulations, and federal statutes, among other documents.