Big Chief Moneybags

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

Seminole Indian chief James Billie, dressed in traditional multicolor jersey and snakeskin boots, is dropping fast from two miles above the earth toward his target -- a windblown airport runway in Tallahassee. The man sitting next to him in the copilot's seat, an old friend of mixed Creek Indian and Anglo lineage, has grown accustomed to Billie's 200-mile-per-hour nosedives, but a third occupant of the airplane is nervously grabbing at a seat belt.

The eight-seat Turbocommander Billie flies today is sleek and fast but actually represents a certain fiscal modesty. Until he sold his jet last year, Billie was in the habit of roaming the skies in a nine-million-dollar customized model once owned by Ferdinand Marcos. One of the last trips he took led from the Seminoles' Big Cypress reservation in western Broward to Nashville and on to Canada's Northwest Territories. He went there with members of his country music band to play a gig for some Inuit natives above the Arctic Circle and returned home with his hung-over entourage declaring the northern Indians a bunch of vodka-swilling drunks.

"The whole trip was like a hallucination," recalls band member John Stacey. "We're coming back from the show, and we gotta drop one guy off in St. Pete, but first we gotta see another man about an owl. So we go to Cross City, Florida. We radioed ahead, landed, and sat around and drank beer till the guy got there. The guy shows up with a live owl in a box, and two or three salted turkey carcasses. The feet and the feathers were still on the turkeys -- I figured it was for some kind of ceremonial thing. I'm layin' these turkey carcasses all over my amp and guitar and I'm thinking, you're not really supposed to just grab an owl and put him in a plane and take off. But that's how it always is traveling with James."

Billie's airplane, like his three helicopters, isn't technically his; all four belong to the tribe. And although he resembles a benevolent dictator in his management style, he shares power with members of an elected tribal council and board of directors. Yet virtually nothing gets done without his approval and involvement. (Billie says he earns about $200,000 per year in his dual role as chairman of the Seminole tribe and vice president of the corporation designed to manage the tribe's business affairs.)

Safe on the runway, Billie and pals park the plane and switch to a minivan, then head south, cell phones blazing as the towns of Panacea and Sopchoppy slip past and St. George Island appears off the Gulf Coast. In a few hours, Tallahassee will host a legislative reception for the Governor's Council on Indian Affairs. Billie may or may not attend, and no one will know what he intends to do until a few minutes before the event begins. It's an old guerrilla tactic from his days in Vietnam, he says -- keep your battle plans secret until you absolutely have to divulge them.

In Apalachicola the chief spends twenty minutes looking at a bed and breakfast the tribe might buy and also scouts a possible location for a new Seminole airboat concession. Then it's time for a "snack" of three dozen raw oysters, a vast pan of soft-shell crabs, salad, gumbo, Shiner Boch beer, and several servings of bread.

The cell phones continue to burble. Elderly diners at neighboring tables edge away from Billie's long-haired posse. The conversation rifles dizzily through a dozen or more of the tribe's more recent business enterprises: the Billie Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress reservation (an ecotourism park that promises to turn a profit within the next three years); the tribe's turtle-farming venture on the Brighton reservation; its rope factory and fledgling aircraft manufacturing company; pepper and citrus farms; a 3000-acre commercial hunting preserve west of Fort Lauderdale that just cleared $14,000 in a single weekend; commercial leases on cellular phone towers and RV parks; a condiment known as Seminole Swamp Seasoning, soon to appear on Winn-Dixie supermarket shelves statewide; "Chief's Jerky," an all-natural beef stick bearing the likeness of Osceola, the nineteenth-century Seminole war chief; an $80 million land purchase in central Florida that Billie and the tribal council are actively exploring.

Billie expresses a certain ambivalence about an upcoming trip to Tibet to meet with a botanist. The meeting is connected to the top-secret launch of a new herbal concoction called River of Grass. He shows more enthusiasm for a planned expedition to Minnesota to look at a machine capable of turning whole feathered chickens and wheat into dog and alligator food.

"The idea is to spread out into other ventures, so if the bingo halls get taken out from under us we won't be left in a 1960s situation," Billie says. "We didn't get where we are by being conservative, and we're not gonna start now. So we're trying a lot of different things as fast as we can. Some of 'em fizzle, some of 'em gonna make money. That's what it's about: money, independence, self-determination."

Smoke shops and tribal bingo halls in Tampa, Immokalee, Brighton, and Hollywood continue to account for 80 to 90 percent of the Seminoles' newfound wealth. Gaming revenues alone are projected at $497 million this year and now translate into $1500 monthly dividend checks for each of the 2440 enrolled members of the tribe.

"I don't see any downside at all," Billie says of the new prosperity. "It's just gonna take awhile for people to learn how to handle it. I remember when the money started coming in, one of our young fellas went out and bought the biggest pickup truck he could buy, all loaded with stereo equipment, power this, power that. Next week I see the truck flipped over in the ditch and him walking down the road just like before." But Billie knows the gold rush could dry up overnight. Hence the new adventures in capitalism and a hedging of bets bankrolled by gaming profits.

The Seminoles won a series of court battles in the Eighties that upheld their right to operate high-stakes bingo halls and sell tax-free cigarettes on reservation land. And though Billie is arguably the leading pioneer of Indian gaming in America, he and his Seminoles have fallen short of establishing full-blown casino gambling like the Muckleshoot Indians of Washington State or the Mashantucket Pequots who run Connecticut's Foxwoods casino -- the largest and most lucrative gambling house in the Western Hemisphere.

The problem is that the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires a "compact" between a state and a tribe before Las Vegas-style gambling can take place on Indian land. For years Florida has refused to negotiate such an agreement with the Seminoles. Moreover, both federal and state law enforcement authorities contend that the existing Seminole gaming palaces are illegal because of the presence of video slot machines and low-stakes poker rooms. State and federal authorities have so far opted against direct intervention, choosing to sue instead. Court action is bogged in jurisdictional and sovereignty questions.

Billie believes he's within his rights as the leader of a sovereign nation to force the issue of all-out casino gambling. Treaties and early Supreme Court decisions gave Indian tribes powers equal to those of states, though subordinate to Congress. But so far he's biding his time. The tribe is building its fifth bingo hall, a $40 million, 150,000-square-foot structure on a five-acre parcel of land the tribe owns in suburban Coconut Creek. Some observers predict it will be the site of the tribe's first full-fledged casino.

"At a certain point, I will ruffle up my feathers and go ahead and do it, and then let them challenge me," Billie says of gaming expansion, which could increase tribal profits tenfold. "I don't really give a shit about diplomacy in this kind of thing, but this time I thought I would be diplomatic. It's just taking its time. In the meantime, members of the tribe are learning how to manage and manipulate their monies. If we had millions more pouring in, it could be a tremendous burden on me and a lot of other people."

Says Jim Shore, a blind tribal member who serves as lead attorney for the Seminoles: "Our position is that the state already operates or allows class-three gaming on cruise ships and through the lottery, and therefore we should be able to do class-three gaming also."

Both men -- and the tribe's high-priced lobbyists in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. -- are waiting to see if this fall's gubernatorial election represents a decline or an escalation in the state's hostility toward tribal gaming enterprises. Neither of the two front-running candidates has publicly suggested he would welcome a change in policy.

Meanwhile the thick-wristed, bowlegged Billie -- licensed cosmetologist, practicing shaman, self-styled sex symbol, would-be singing star, tall-tale teller, and populist pol -- spends a large part of his days being pursued by interlopers and hangers-on from the outside world who range from well-intended Indianophiles and capitalists without capital to outright scam artists. At a recent tribal council meeting, a fat man in lamentably tight blue jeans rose to the podium and described an 800,000-square-foot "enclosed resort" he wants to build for the tribe on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. "There will be no hidden agendas," the portly fellow promised, going on to identify himself as John Warrior, an "adopted" member of an Oklahoma Indian tribe.

"If you hung around Wayne Huizenga's office, you'd see the same thing," says Pete Gallagher, a long-time member of Billie's entourage. "Everyone wants five minutes with James Billie because everyone wants a piece of the action."

For the past twenty years Billie has led the transformation of the Seminoles from poverty-stricken outcasts to prosperous players in the South Florida economy. His successes have been notable enough to obscure the fact that things could have been much different for the tribe. In the mid-Fifties the Seminoles came within a whisker of losing their reservations and tribal identity through a federal policy known as "termination." Their history, before and after that point, has been defined by uncertainty and tumult. So was Billie's early life.

Born on a chimpanzee farm in Dania 54 years ago, he was nearly murdered within minutes of his birth. His Seminole mother had made the mistake of conceiving him with a white soldier stationed at a nearby military base. The tribe detested half-breeds and often prescribed postpartum drownings. A sympathetic fellow clan member happened to intervene, and Billie lived.

He never knew his father. His mother died when he was nine years old, and he spent his childhood in various households, haylofts, and back seats of cars, an orphan. For a while his grandmother raised him. She herself was an ostracized victim, in her case of a scandalous incest. The perpetrator, her father, was killed on orders of tribal elders.

In the spring of 1965, Billie began the first of two tours of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Army Ranger. A member and then a leader of a long-range reconnaissance patrol, Billie scouted positions behind enemy lines, killed as many combatants as possible, and earned a reputation for bringing his men out of the jungle alive. In 1968, while he was on leave, his unit was wiped out. The dead men were later found kneeling in a circle, their heads buried in the ground.

Billie returned to the Hollywood Seminole reservation with a bad case of war jitters, bought a motorcycle, floundered from job to job, and managed to get himself arrested for stealing an outboard boat motor. "No one in a million years could have predicted what James would become," says Tommy Taylor, a white friend who grew up near the reservation with Billie. "On the other hand, he's always been completely unpredictable. And very determined."

Of the reservation at that time, Taylor recalls, "the Seminoles were so poor they used to circle their cars around this little makeshift rodeo ground they had near Stirling Road and 441, 'cause there wasn't any money for lights at night. People would come over there and bring two or three loaves of bread and some packs of bologna, and that was a big treat."

Billie wrestled alligators at a roadside tourist village, started a company that built native thatched-roof chickees and made his first real money, then began to get involved in tribal politics. In 1979 he was narrowly elected chairman of the tribe. He duplicated his success in four more elections over the years. "Some of 'em vote for me because they're old friends or members of my clan," Billie says, "some of 'em put me in because they thought I was the sorriest choice -- except for all the others."

In 1983 he made himself nationally famous for the first time when he was hauled into federal court for killing and barbecuing a panther on the Big Cypress reservation. (When asked what panther tastes like, Billie retorts: "Sorta like a cross between manatee and bald eagle.") To environmentalists the killing was an outrage. Billie, unrepentant, eventually beat the rap by arguing that the dead cat wasn't provably a pureblood Florida panther and therefore wasn't protected by the Endangered Species Act. More important, he insisted the killing was a form of religious expression, a part of Seminole shamanistic tradition. It was the first in a long series of head-buttings between Billie and forces outside the tribe, encounters that had the effect of further asserting Seminole sovereignty.

The most recent high-profile skirmish took place over the past fifteen months after two St. Petersburg Times newspaper reporters began investigating the tribe and its gaming operations. The reporters were interested in, among other things, the government subsidies that Seminoles continue to receive and the management of the tribe's business empire. Billie and other tribal members gradually became aware of the investigation.

"When I hear that someone's investigating, I say, 'Here I am,'" Billie declares. "It didn't really irk me until they wrote a letter to my personal secretary." That letter arrived on June 30, 1997, at Patricia Diamond's home. It began "Dear Pat" and moved quickly toward a sales pitch for treachery.

"I understand the position this letter puts you in, but I've only the interest of the tribe at heart," wrote Brad Goldstein, the Times's computer-assisted reporting editor. "I'm aware that you may be in possession of certain documents that could help our pursuit of the truth: namely how rank and file tribal members are being hurt by irresponsible leadership.

"You don't need to contact me by telephone. But if copies of those documents were to arrive in an envelope that has no return address on it, the truth will get out, and there will be no trace. If anonymous phone calls were to come to me at 1-800-333-7505 extension 8333 I wouldn't know who was on the other end. Anonymity is crucial. Your name will never come up. Anonymous notes written on a home typewriter would be best."

Closing with a dramatic flourish, Goldstein emphasized to Diamond that "the truth is crucial. No one else is willing to ensure that tribal members get what is owed to them. The FBI isn't. No one but the press. I hope you look into your heart and do the right thing. Innocent people are being hurt. And if something isn't done, then the problem could swallow up everyone."

Then Diamond started receiving calls from Goldstein at home. Mostly she listened. Goldstein chatted with her about her hometown in West Virginia. "That bothered me," she later told a reporter. "I wondered how he found that out." And: "I got the feeling he wanted me to affirm things he was saying, so I didn't even grunt."

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."

The paper noted that Seminole gaming operations "appear to be tainted by the very types of problems voters sought to keep out of this state when they defeated constitutional amendments to allow the spread of casinos: inadequate records of large sums of money changing hands, questions about the integrity of some games, lax regulation, and concerns by some law enforcement officials about whether organized crime is involved."

These questions, concerns, and appearances should be "enough to attract the attention of Congress and law enforcement," the Times editorial board opined.

It already has. In Congress, Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington, introduced a bill that would drastically reduce Indian sovereignty. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, has drafted another bill that would exempt substantial portions of land within Indian reservations from tribal rule. And in Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson is threatening to cancel casino gaming compacts with Indians unless they agree to limit their hunting and fishing rights and back away from their efforts to strictly enforce clean-water standards on reservations -- a use of sovereign power granted by Congress a decade ago and immediately seized upon by the Seminoles and a few other tribes.

As Seminole attorney Jim Shore notes, centuries-old rights of Indian self-government are coming under increasing attack both locally and nationally as tribes are flexing their political and economic muscles. The backlash, partly driven by conservative anti-tax fervor, isn't a coincidence, he says: "As long as we were selling trinkets by the roadside, we weren't perceived as a threat. Now there's a lot of grumbling about 'rich Indians.'"

Standing in the firelight near his Mercedes-Benz while he hacks cedar chips from a new dugout canoe, Chief Billie says the anti-Indian hostility is misguided. This year, according to tribal comptroller Jim Boyd, the Seminoles received $16.2 million in federal and state funding from agencies such as the Indian Health Service, Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Agriculture -- a nice chunk of change at first glance, but a pittance when placed in historical and social context. The tribal corporation with its burgeoning cash flow is no different from any other successful corporation, Billie insists. "What's funny is that people who have stock in ITT or Exxon and make a nice dividend -- I don't get bent out of shape about that," Billie explains. "Well, our people have stock in the Seminole Tribe of Florida."

The real Fourth Seminole War is still to come, and members of the tribe will no doubt be looking for a battle-hardened guerrilla leader. Billie says he's considering a touch of hair dye, maybe an eye tuck. He may fly to Durham, North Carolina, to a famous fat farm, drop a few of his 205 pounds, and get back in fighting trim. "I'm waiting for some young buck with bright ideas to step up and take over the herd, as they say," he offers. "But until that happens, I'm staying put. People are gonna have to deal with me."

Meanwhile the chief pilots his favorite helicopter from band practice to casino management meetings to an open-air photo shoot. The photos -- Billie posing in an airboat, Billie poling a dugout canoe -- will be used to create a label for Indian Secret, an all-purpose cleaning product the chief himself invented.

While preening for the camera, Billie dreams out loud about the future of one of the tribe's worst failures: a massive, Wal-Mart-size gaming parlor on the isolated Big Cypress reservation, still listed on some highway maps as the World's Largest Bingo Hall. Today the parking lot is littered with surplus military equipment bought cheap from the federal government. Tomorrow, though, the money might flow again: "What we need is a luxury hotel next door," Billie muses. "People come out here, they want to stay the night." Billie mentions his old acquaintance Donald Trump, who visited the reservation a couple of months ago. Yes, he confirms, the two discussed the prospect of casino gambling. "When the time comes that I need somebody who knows what they're doing, I'd just as soon use Donald. He's got that flair about him that I like. On the other hand, we might manage the whole project ourselves, keep it in the family. That's where we're going in the future, more and more.

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