But the ouster of Cypress in late 2009, who was replaced by Colley Billie, the tribe’s longtime poker director, has led to an era of bad blood spilling into the public arena, with the firing of employees once close to Cypress and the filing of lawsuits targeting lawyers who once advised him. The power struggle between the two Miccosukees dates to 1987, when Cypress ousted Billie’s father, Sonny, setting the stage for his dominant reign as chairman.
Cypress grew up not only on the Miccosukee reservation but in other parts of Florida. His father was an alligator wrestler, moving from attraction to attraction. He completed an associate’s degree at Miami Dade College and was just three credits short of a bachelor’s in business from Barry University.
The fiercely independent Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, once part of the Seminole nation in Broward County, was best known for its five-mile-long reservation, rough-hewn chickee huts, and airboat rides off the Tamiami Trail. But with their sovereign authority, the Cypress-led Miccosukees were allowed to pursue gambling ventures like their Seminole neighbors to the north.
Cypress’ first major accomplishment: the tribe’s 2,000-seat bingo hall built on 25 acres at Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail in 1990 — though a partnership with outside management would lead to years of hostile litigation.
The bingo parlor’s profits helped pay for much-needed housing and other modern amenities for tribal members, which boosted Cypress’ popularity. “Almost every household has some tribal employment,” he boasted to The Miami Herald in a rare interview in 1993.
But Cypress had bigger plans beyond bingo. Despite misgivings by some Miccosukees about gambling’s effect on their native culture, Cypress won over tribal members to build a $50 million casino and resort hotel offering bingo-style slot machines and poker. The Miccosukees still use those so-called “Class II” machines. And unlike the Seminoles that feature Las Vegas-style slots, they don’t have a revenue-sharing deal with the state.
During the 1990s, Cypress and his tribe also began challenging state and federal authorities over the future of the Everglades and related environmental issues. The tribe’s prominent advocate was Dexter Lehtinen, a former U.S. attorney in Miami and husband of Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“We want everything under the sun,” Cypress told The Los Angeles Times in 1999. “Our goal is self-sufficiency.”
The Miccosukees really started cashing in on their casino complex in the 2000 era. Flush with huge profits, the tribe started doling out tens of millions of dollars yearly to its members, with each collecting as much as $120,000, according to sources familiar with the distributions. The Miccosukee name and logo also appeared on advertisements at Miami Heat, Dolphins and Marlins venues.
The tribe also spent millions on lobbyists in Washington and Tallahassee to protect its gambling interests, along with contributing to the campaigns of South Florida politicians and others. Also significant, the Miccosukees spent millions more on lawyers such as Lehtinen and Lewis to fight their battles with the Internal Revenue Service, according to court and other public records.
Since 2005, the Miccosukees have been dueling with the IRS over the distribution of unreported gambling profits to members, who are required by law to pay taxes on their personal income. The agency has won several federal court disputes to obtain the tribe’s financial records from Morgan Stanley for much of the past decade.