Indian War

A Hollywood man has spent the past decade trying to pry open the Seminoles' accounting books -- without much success

In the course of his inquiry, however, Braun had discovered that both the tribe and the BIA were aware of these defects. According to a memo to Braun by Charles S. Harris, who helped launch the fish farm in 1976 and managed it until the end of 1983, pond sludge was a recognized problem, and it had caused massive fish losses.

Moreover, Braun learned from Harris that federal money intended for farm improvements had been diverted by tribal officials. During Harris' tenure, the farm received about $700,000 in federal subsidies. The tribe had also received a $750,000 grant to build a refrigerated processing plant, Harris wrote. When the funds arrived, however, only half went to build the facility, "so it was naturally undersized and not properly equipped," he wrote.

Leon Braun swims against the current of Indian law in his lengthy quest to sue the Seminole Tribe of Florida
Leon Braun swims against the current of Indian law in his lengthy quest to sue the Seminole Tribe of Florida
U.S. Fish Corp. investors hoped that fish eggs (above) would mature into gold by harvest time (left) at the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation. The venture spawned only lawsuits.
U.S. Fish Corp. investors hoped that fish eggs (above) would mature into gold by harvest time (left) at the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation. The venture spawned only lawsuits.

As an entity, the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida is not even a half century old, but some of its members trace their roots back hundreds of years. Most Florida Seminoles were forced to relocate to Oklahoma in 1838, a migration called the Trail of Tears, during which thousands died. Some Seminoles refused to leave, however, retreating instead into the wilds of the Everglades in the mid-1850s. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which became the basis by which Indian tribes could organize tribal governments and adopt constitutions.

Descendants of the Everglades holdouts formed a charter in 1957 that was approved by the federal government. Howard Tommie was elected chairman of the tribe in 1971 and introduced tobacco shops and high-stakes bingo in Hollywood. Bingo had already been allowed in Florida, but the law limited jackpots to $100. The state sued, but in 1981, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld the tribe's right to offer big-bucks bingo. In the late 1980s, the Seminoles broadened their operations with poker and slot machines.

Casinos brought in millions of dollars and gave this tribe of 2,800 people the capital to diversify into other businesses, such as the fish farm and an aircraft factory in Fort Pierce. But managing the tribe's newfound lucre has long been problematic. Says one former management-level employee: "Budgets don't mean that much to them. They pass them because they have to for the [federal aid]. But they've never followed them." Indeed, as far back as the early 1980s, tribal leaders have had problems keeping track of where the money goes.

In 1983, the Federal Election Commission began looking into illegal campaign contributions made by the Florida Seminoles through their lawyer, Stephen H. Whilden. Formerly with the Office of Management and Budget under Richard Nixon, Whilden had been hired as tribal counsel in 1977. In July 1983, the FEC notified Whilden and several members of the tribe -- including then-chairman James Billie -- that it was investigating contributions they had allegedly made to federal candidates and committees under other people's names. According to FEC documents, Howard Tommie had established an account in the late 1970s raised from a nickel levy on each carton of cigarettes sold on the reservation. Although the fund was supposed to be used for litigation, the FEC documents claimed it was used to reimburse tribal members who contributed to political campaigns.

Whilden argued that Indian tribes had sovereign immunity from the Federal Election Campaign Act because Congress did not expressly include them in the law. Although that same immunity argument was to stymie Braun a decade later, Charles Steele, general counsel for the FEC, would have none of it. In a memo to the commission, he wrote that the contributions did not "involve internal tribal self-government, rather they concern the relationship of the tribe with the larger society."

The FEC requested financial documents from the tribe, and when it became clear they would not produce them, the agency filed suit in federal court. The FEC concluded that the tribe had used $119,400 to reimburse 35 individuals from 1979 through 1982 and ordered a civil fine of $32,000.

Whilden, who had been fired by the tribe in 1982, had made $39,000 in contributions with tribal funds. He left the country in 1988; the FEC, unable to locate him, closed the case in 1990.

The tribe has also had lapses in accounting for government aid it receives. A three-part series published by the St. Petersburg Times in December 1997 reported that the tribe had received $39.2 million in federal and state aid in 1995. Auditors from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency had found that the Seminole Housing Authority was renting its properties to tribal members far below the rates approved by HUD. As a result, some renters were receiving subsidies they didn't deserve.

That same article reported that in 1992, Federal Emergency Management Agency auditors concluded that the Seminole Tribe had diverted about $60,000 in emergency aid after Hurricane Andrew hit. The money had been used to buy three Chevrolets as door prizes for a tribal meeting. The tribe returned the money after the misuse was discovered.

A struggle over tribal control boiled over last May when the council ousted chairman Billie two weeks after he had been sued in federal court by an employee claiming sexual harassment. (The case was settled out of court.) The council declared its intent to audit business deals in which Billie had been involved, and in September 2001, the tribe filed a civil suit against Billie, along with Timothy W. Cox, who managed the tribe's day-to-day operations, and Peter T. Ripich, who managed the tribe's investment fund. The suit alleged that beginning in late 1999, the three had embezzled gambling revenues and federal grants held in accounts at Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. The men transferred $2.7 million to Virtual Data, a Belize-based company owned by former tribal employee Danny H. Wisher. The judge subsequently dismissed the case against Billie and Cox.

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