Back in 1992, Billy Cypress traveled from Miami to Washington, D.C., to testify about the Miccosukee Tribe’s savior.
“Gambling puts our people back to work,” Cypress, the 600-member tribe’s chairman, told a panel of U.S. senators. “It has replaced federal funding and unemployment benefits as the solution to our economic problems.”
Over the next couple of decades, the tribe’s ever-expanding gaming enterprise on the edge of the Everglades would, indeed, generate millions for each and every Miccosukee. But the financial windfall would also boomerang on Cypress, a dynamic leader who had brought the defiant West Miami-Dade tribe and himself into the modern world.
Last week, his own people turned against him in a once-unimaginable lawsuit: Cypress is accused of stealing $26 million from the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians and spending the money like an addict on gambling, travel, shopping, jewelry, real estate and luxury cars.
Among the eye-openers cited in the suit: Cypress made a total of $11.5 million in ATM withdrawals at casinos around the country between 2006 and 2009, drawing the money on the tribe’s investment account with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. In March 2009, at the height of the nation’s recession, Cypress withdrew a total of $1.43 million from the account — mostly in transactions of $10,300 each — at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, according to the suit. He also made similar ATM withdrawals at The Mirage in Vegas, the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood, a direct competitor to the Miccosukees.
The racketeering suit, filed in Miami federal court last week, depicts Cypress as a serial “thief” provided “protection” by a coterie of excessively paid professionals, including two former U.S. attorneys, two ex-Miccosukee financial officers and the Miami office of the brokerage firm Morgan Stanley. Loyal to Cypress, they never alerted other tribal members about his “enormous fraud and theft scheme,” the suit says.
“These defendants associated with each other for the common purpose of defrauding the Miccosukee Tribe and the Miccosukee people through … secretly protecting the illegal conversion and misappropriation by Cypress and others of tribal funds,” says the 78-page suit, which called the alleged conspiracy a “criminal enterprise.”
Cypress, 61, could not be reached for comment.
His personal lawyers, Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, and partner Michael Tein, also a former federal prosecutor — both named as defendants in the tribe’s suit — did not return calls or emails for comment about their client.
According to the suit, their law firm was paid more than $10 million for unsubstantiated “legal work” representing the tribe itself on tax matters stemming from the unreported distribution of gambling profits to members, as well as individual members such as Cypress for their personal income tax and DUI problems. Lewis and Tein, who also are facing the fallout of a $3.2 million judgment against two other tribal clients found liable in a fatal-car crash case, have been separately sued by the Miccosukees for legal malpractice.
What sets the Cypress suit apart from all other Miccosukee litigation is the simple fact that he’s family. For decades, the Miccosukees have kept their own business on the reservation, asserting their sovereign status in countless civil and criminal legal cases with outsiders.