Gamblin' Men

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

The tribe has done just that, Cox contends, by reneging on a major contract for an existing casino. In June 2002, the tribe quit making monthly payments to Coconut Creek Gaming, the outside partnership that funded construction and installation of gaming machines at Coconut Creek Casino. As part of that deal, the tribe committed to paying the partnership 35 percent of the casino's net gaming revenues for ten years after its opening in February 2000. Attorneys for the partnership tried in vain to meet with tribal officials to discuss the delinquent payments, which amount to about $2 million a month. Coconut Creek Gaming has since sued the tribe.

Tim Cox lives in a modest neighborhood in Plantation just off I-595 with his wife, Amy, who is a member of the Seminole Tribe, and their two children. Their one-story, rust-colored brick house is sparsely decorated inside. His study, however, just down the hall from the sunken living room, is jam-packed with tribal documents and court pleadings. Taped to the office door, a homemade placard declares: "Fourth Seminole War Room."

Michael Austin
Michael Austin

On this cool and sunny day in early January, Cox is beset with a flurry of incoming phone calls, which he is forced to start screening in hopes of completing an anecdote without interruption. He projects the image of a 33-year-old teenager. His frame is small and gangling, and a sly grin frequently crosses his baby face. His high-timbre voice rolls with a rich Southern drawl. He's wearing beige shorts and a black T-shirt with lettering that cautions: "Do not start with me, you will not win." For would-be litigators, at least, the admonition is apt.

Cox worked as government operations manager for the Seminole Tribe of Florida for about two years before losing that job on May 10, 2001. Cox says he resigned; the tribal council officially terminated his employment at a meeting later that same day. Two weeks later, the tribal council suspended its chairman, Billie, who had become enmeshed in a federal lawsuit accusing him of sexually harassing a tribe employee.

In September 2001, the tribe sued Cox, Billie, and the St. Petersburg-based Raymond James investment firm in federal court, alleging they had misused the tribe's $30 million investment reserves. The judge dismissed this civil suit in July 2002 for lack of jurisdiction. In a similar criminal case filed in federal court in June 2002, Cox, along with tribal employees Dan Wisher and Michael Crumpton, were indicted and charged with diverting $2.77 million to private accounts in South America.

The three men went on trial in Fort Lauderdale in early December. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Stamm contended that the men had funneled money to a bogus company, Virtual Data, which was used to conceal the fraud. Cox and Wisher gained access to the tribe's $25 million investment account, Stamm told jurors, and then wrote checks to personal accounts and phony businesses. Other funds were transferred to front companies in Belize and Nicaragua, he claimed.

Billie's testimony laid waste to the prosecution's case, however, when he told jurors that he'd fully authorized Virtual Data. The company was a foray into the lucrative field of Internet gambling and used the discretionary funds available to Billie as chairman. He kept the venture secret, though, because of the tribe's ongoing dispute with the state over a gaming compact and a possible crackdown on Internet gambling by Congress. If the winds turned against such an operation, he didn't want the tribe connected with it.

Using a procedure he said was routine for the tribe, he ordered Cox and Wisher to set up Virtual Data under their own names and use their own accounts for all transactions. The practice was intended to keep the outside world from seeing all their holdings.

After two weeks of testimony, U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas didn't even let the case go to the jury, ruling that the government's allegations were undermined during defense cross-examination and that there was insufficient evidence that tribe money was embezzled. The judge suggested that this case was not unlike prosecuting someone for stealing a car without first checking with the car's owner whether it had been stolen. The three men were acquitted.

Knowing all he did about the council's laissez-faire attitude toward finances, Cox says he was confident that his actions wouldn't be found criminal. "I never believed I was going away," he says. "I never sat down with my kids and said, 'Daddy may be going away for a while.' I was looking at ten years, but I was sure the system would prevail."

Despite the tribe's civil lawsuits against him, Cox says he doesn't hold a grudge against the Seminoles. He considers what's happened in the past few years involving him, Billie, and others as a "family feud." He reserves his animosity for the FBI and prosecutors. "I spent $1.3 billion for the tribe. And they're questioning me about a $2.7 million transaction? That's like me giving you $100 and coming back later and asking you how you spent that money, coming up with $99.80, and you say to me, 'You fucking thief.' That's the equivalent."

Because he was a demanding manager, Cox had an antagonistic relationship with employees from the moment he began. "James called me 'the hatchet man,'" Cox recollects. "I was the one who was going to get everybody mad by changing the organization." He remembers Councilman Max Osceola telling employees at one meeting, "If you get mad at what [Cox] does, you don't understand who you work for. We're telling him what to do. Don't get mad at him; come to us."

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