Gamblin' Men

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

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is composed of descendants of Native Americans who resisted forced relocation by the federal government from Florida to Oklahoma during the first half of the 1850s. Rather than move, some retreated into the Everglades. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which became the basis by which Indian tribes could organize tribal governments and adopt constitutions. The Seminole Tribe of Florida formed a charter in 1957, but most of its members remained uneducated and poor. In 1971, Chairman Howard Tommie 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 high-stakes bingo. Through the 1990s Indian gaming has boomed nationwide, as have the Seminoles' gaming operations. The 2,800-member tribe has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars, but its management of that newfound lucre remained unsophisticated. Billie charged Cox with modernizing the organization.

Support for Cox, however, had waned by the end of 2000, and he was under fire at council meetings. It was around that time that agents of the FBI and IRS began asking questions of members and employees of the tribe. The agencies were interested in the tribe's connections with overseas hotels and casinos and whether those operations were being used for laundering money. Most of the inquiries centered on Billie. "They started actively knocking on doors," Cox says of the agents. "I believe they threatened the councilmen," he asserts, particularly David Cypress and Mitchell Cypress, who was then vice chair. New Times requested interviews with both men but received no response. FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela says agents represented themselves in a professional manner and did not pressure anyone.

Michael Austin
Michael Austin

Cox points to a cartoon, taped to the wall, that was published in the Seminole Tribune in March 2001. The drawing depicts him standing before the council and advising a spending freeze; a handful of arrows are lodged in his buttocks. "I should have probably left then, but I'm tougher than I am smart," Cox says. "It was after one nasty meeting that Mitchell looked at me and goes, 'No offense -- everything's OK with you. I'm just not going to jail for James Billie.' And David said, 'Me too.'

"Of course, investigations and rumors of investigations have been around James Billie since he became chair in 1979, so there have been 24 years of investigation. But all they came up with was trying to get me, which wasn't a case at all. They wanted James Billie so bad that they intentionally looked past the evidence."

This latest investigation and the expulsion of Billie, however, came at a vital time in the tribe's negotiations with Hard Rock Cafe and the project's developer, Cordish. "I think Cordish took advantage of a volatile situation, the turmoil in the tribe," Cox asserts. And because it was a deal that Billie had put together, the council felt it needed to change it, he adds. "But they really changed it to the disadvantage of the tribe and its members," Cox claims. "They had no idea what they had committed to. It always looks easy when somebody else is doing it. James had been doing it for 22 years by that point. But they figured if dumb old James can do it, they can do it. But reality has not borne that out, unfortunately."

For ten years, tribe officials pondered building a casino in the northwestern suburbs of Broward County. "The question was: Is Hollywood getting it all already?" Cox says. "Hollywood was doing $100 million a year. The feasibility studies were against the place from the start; that's why the tribe didn't do it with their own money."

Still, in the mid-1990s, Indian casinos were popping up all over the nation, and outside investors were vying to help cash-strapped tribes build and furnish casinos in exchange for a piece of the action. "The lure of big money -- that's what it comes down to," Cox says. "The lure of being able to do things and circumvent the federal and state statutes. That's why people go to the reservations." Indeed, if the Seminoles were cautious about launching a new casino, others weren't so hesitant.

Around that time, Robb Tiller, a tribe hanger-on, approached Billie. "[One] day, he comes up with a guy by the name of Gary Fears, and he says he wants to get into a gaming contract," Billie recalled during an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, the transcript of which is posted on the tribe's website. "I said, 'Yeah, right. You bring something out here, a Turbo Commander [aircraft], lay it right there the next day, and I'll believe you.' Time went along and I be goddam, there was a Turbo Commander layin' out there, and I said, 'What the hell is this?' 'We're gonna give it to you, chief.'"

Fears, an Illinois restaurateur and developer, had already made a fortune in riverboat gambling, but he'd also established a dubious reputation. Using his political connections with the governor, Fears had received a state loan for $13.4 million in 1982 for the financially troubled Collinsville Holiday Inn, which he partly owned. He suspended payments several times during the next five years, according to accounts in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. By 1995, the state moved to cut its losses on the deal by letting Fears pay $6.3 million in lieu of reimbursing the full $20.6 million of the loan. "The taxpayers are going to take a bath, no question about it," state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka said at the time. Illinois' attorney general put the kibosh on that settlement, and the matter is still unresolved.

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