Gamblin' Men

Big-ticket casino deals plus a messy internal power struggle equals even more legal woes for the Seminole tribe

Wearing dark sunglasses that masked his eyes, Seminole Tribal Councilman David Cypress strolled to the witness stand in federal court in Fort Lauderdale on December 13 and for the next five hours astonished observers. On trial were three former Seminole employees charged with embezzling millions of dollars. The trio's defense was simple: Their management of money wasn't out of line with that of the tribe's leaders. With his long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, Cypress spoke rapidly and nervously about tens of millions of dollars he'd lavished on friends, tribe members, and himself.

"I have no problem with spending money; that's what I've been telling you," the Sun-Sentinelthe next day quoted Cypress as saying. "I bought Lexuses for anyone who asked for one. Give me a [sad] Hank Williams song and I'll give you one too."

Cypress represents the Big Cypress Reservation on the five-member tribal council, and he receives an annual spending allocation for his reservation. Other councilmen receive stipends for Brighton, Tampa, Immokalee, and Hollywood. Discretion in spending those millions of dollars is, to put it mildly, a subjective exercise.

Cypress recounted a personal litany of largess that amounted to $57 million in three and a half years. Among the expenditures were $1.6 million to Michael's Decoration; $69,000 to Sound Advice; $40,000 for Bose stereo equipment; $600,000 for auto maintenance and repair at Hendry County Motors; $100,000 at Sears; and roughly $1 million in American Express charges. He spent millions more at Lexus, Cadillac, Honda, BMW, Jeep, Ford, Volkswagen, Lincoln Mercury, and Harley-Davidson dealers.

"I have tribal members that I buy cars for, they go off the reservation, get in trouble, and I need to get a lawyer to get them off the hook," Cypress said. He's shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to hospitals, drug treatment centers, and lawyers for tribe members and friends who have been overwhelmed by the excesses big money often brings.

He paid $5.8 million to Nationwide Landscaping, which is owned by Krishna Lawrence, his business associate. With $350,000 of tribal money, the two bought a Hollywood boxing gym, from which Cypress keeps all profits.

"I like to help people, and I enjoy giving money away," Cypress told the jury. "Everyone knows if they show up at my door, I'm probably going to help them. That's just the way I am, and I don't want to change."

Nor does it appear that he or any of his fellow councilmen have any reason to curtail the spending binge. In an August 2002 deposition in a civil lawsuit involving the Seminole Tribe, Priscilla Sayen, the tribe's secretary-treasurer, was asked about budget controls and Cypress' spending. Sayen said that the council had budgeted $5 million for the year to Big Cypress Reservation. More than $12 million had already been spent, however. No budget amendments or resolutions had been passed to approve the $7 million in additional spending, nor was he sanctioned as a result.

The tribe's free-spending ways come as no surprise to Tim Cox, who was once the government operations manager for the Seminoles and the right-hand man to former Chairman James Billie. Cox and Billie have been wrangling with the tribe in court since they were ousted in May 2001 by the tribal council, and they've also been targets of federal investigations.

"Keep in mind that you're not dealing with the City of Fort Lauderdale; it's a different country," Cox says of the sovereign Indian nation. "They send their tribal members to Disney on a routine basis, all expenses paid. Buy them cars. They get free medical, which includes breast implants, penile implants. You name it, they get it. And it's all free. Budgets don't mean that much to them. They pass them because they have to for [federal] money. But they've never followed them."

The tumult in leadership came at a crucial time in the tribe's negotiations with Baltimore-based developer Cordish Co. to build Hard Rock Cafe resort-casino complexes in Hollywood and Tampa. Cox claims that Cordish took advantage of the turmoil in tribal leadership and sweetened the deal for itself. Under the deal's terms, the Seminoles offered a $290 million revenue bond to build the resorts, but the tribe is required to use its own money for actual construction of the casino portions, which will cost an estimated $60 million. The tribe won't regain complete control over the operations for 25 years. Completion is expected in spring 2004, with the casinos the last component to be built.

Before getting the boot, Cox and Billie had set up a deal in which Cordish would foot all the upfront costs of securing the bond and the tribe would have gained control in ten years, Cox says.

The modified Cordish-Hard Rock deal has already caused problems for Seminole leadership. As Cypress' testimony suggests, the tribe manages to spend almost all of its roughly $325 million annual revenue, which is derived mainly from casinos in Hollywood, Coconut Creek, Brighton, Immokalee, and Tampa.

"It's not hard to figure out that if you're making $300 million a year and you're spending $290 a year, it's hard to [save] $60 million," Cox says of the money needed for the casinos. "It's basic arithmetic. The only way to [get $60 million] is to terminate contracts and sell land."

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