Big Chief Moneybags

Part CEO, part shaman, Seminole leader James Billie has his tribe charging toward economic independence.

Jo-Linn Osceola, the tribe's data manager, also began getting calls, this time from St. Petersburg Times reporter Jeff Testerman. So did ex-wives and ex-girlfriends of tribal leaders and associates including Billie, attorney Shore, and Jim Clare, owner of Pan American & Associates, a company that operates Seminole Bingo in Tampa.

Much to his amazement, Clare discovered that Goldstein had shown up in Lima, Peru, where his company runs a casino unrelated to the Seminole operation. When Goldstein began hanging around the casino asking questions, security guards tailed him to his hotel and kept him under periodic surveillance for the next week, one source says.

Not surprisingly, Diamond and other recipients of the Times letters simply turned them over to tribal authorities rather than risk criminal prosecution for theft of documents. On July 21, Jo-Linn Osceola stood up at a tribal council meeting and complained about Testerman pestering her. Other tribal members chimed in, many of them feeling they were being badgered by the reporters. One woman said she was horrified to learn that one of the journalists had somehow learned about her years-old drug arrest and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy -- and got the distinct sense that the Times was using the information to pressure her into spying.

And so began a tribal counteroffensive to the Times's expose in progress. Over the next few months the tribe's own newspaper, the Seminole Tribune, began reporting on the methods and stratagems of Testerman and Goldstein, then posted their stories on the Internet. As Chief Billie sat back and chuckled, these unusual efforts at self-defense drew attention from various media observers, including Editor & Publisher, a journalism trade magazine, and MSNBC, the 24-hour cable news channel. In short order, the cybertrenches were ablaze. While the Times men found supportive comrades in the chatrooms of the Investigative Reporters & Editors Website, they were subjected to some withering criticism elsewhere.

Goldstein's letter to Diamond and another to Dr. Timothy Lozon, an Indian Health Service dentist, were roundly criticized by experts in journalism ethics. In particular the letters elicited raised eyebrows for their apparent preconceived bias and willingness to offer blanket anonymity as a come-on to disgruntled tribal members or ex-employees.

"Makes my skin crawl," notes Kim Walsh-Childers, a University of Florida journalism ethics professor. "I usually try to be fairly careful in my evaluation, but that letter raises serious concerns."

"At about the second paragraph of the letter I start getting very uncomfortable," says Jean Chance, another UF journalism professor who reviewed the missive. "It doesn't sound like a veteran journalist."

"It appears to me that their methods smack of desperation," adds Keith Woods, a journalism ethics instructor at the nonprofit Poynter Institute.

Concerned that the Times reporters had obtained passwords and computer codes and were hacking into the tribe's mainframe, Billie established a $5000 bounty on snitches and turncoats. (No one has collected the reward to date.) "We witch-hunted a little bit ourselves," Billie acknowledges, declining to say whether he has any hard evidence of document theft or hacking. "We were interested in who was trying to infiltrate our computer system. That's pretty serious stuff. We're talking about medical records, confidential financial records. I was prepared to put all our lawyers on their ass, and that's still hangin' in the air."

Goldstein calls the hacking accusation "ludicrous" but otherwise declined to discuss the investigation.

Even before the St. Petersburg Times published its three-part series, Billie seemed to be winning what one journalism observer called the Fourth Seminole War. Leading the charge at the Seminole Tribune was Pete Gallagher, himself a former St. Petersburg Times reporter and columnist.

Having left their own ill-considered paper trail all over the reservation and having underestimated the loyalties in the tribe, Testerman and Goldstein, Gallagher pointed out, appeared to be using as their main inspiration a fun-loving but notoriously shady ex-Seminole groupie named Robb Tiller. For years, before a falling-out with Billie, Tiller had attempted to broker a variety of crackbrained deals between Indians and outsiders, including various high-flying casino management schemes that never panned out and the purchase of dysfunctional Chinese jeeps.

On October 22 Testerman and Goldstein met with Billie and other tribal officials for a powwow. Perhaps because of Billie's lawsuit threats or the Times reporters' fears of physical assault, the meeting took place under a picnic pavilion on the beach at Gulfport, near the newspaper's headquarters. Within hours of tape-recording the event, Gallagher posted the transcript on the Internet. In December the St. Petersburg Times published its series on the tribe that contained a great deal of rehashed allegations about purported mob connections to Indian gaming from as far back as the Seventies, and precious little new information.

"The fact is that they spent a whole lot of money on it and the series never came to fruition," says John Sugg, senior editor at Tampa's Weekly Planet. "I don't think there were any new revelations there. My impression is that the story they intended to write never got written because of the counterattack by the Seminoles."

Though Testerman's and Goldstein's news stories were published first, they seemed to be almost an afterthought for the editorial that followed. The Times urged state and federal authorities to use "their full powers to force the Seminoles to unplug their slot machines and better justify their federal subsidies."

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