In a malpractice lawsuit against Lehtinen, the tribe admitted in court papers that more than 100 Miccosukee Indians owe the federal government about $25.8 million in back taxes, penalties and interest on income for 2000-05.
The tribe, which says it paid his law firm $50 million for counsel on environmental, income-tax and other legal issues starting in 1992, now wants him to pay damages. Lehtinen, who was fired in 2010, counters that he never misled the tribe about its members’ tax obligations, saying that he had recommended that the Miccosukees set a reserve fund to settle with the IRS.
The IRS’ probe of the tribe led the agency to suspect that Cypress himself was not reporting all of his income. In 2010, the IRS claimed that he owed the government almost $2.8 million in taxes and penalties on $6.65 million in unreported income from 2003-05. His personal attorneys, Lewis and Tein, contested the claim, saying a lot of that money involved legitimate business expenses and double counting by the government.
About half of his unreported income came from cash advances on his tribe-issued American Express cards, according to IRS records obtained by The Miami Herald. Cypress used tribal funds at hotels, casinos, restaurants, sports venues and on other spending sprees, the agency records show. The IRS says Cypress’ income totaled $10.7 million for the three-year period.
But Cypress’ potential tax liability for 2006-09 could be much greater, according to the Miccosukee Tribe’s latest lawsuit. Consider: In addition to the staggering ATM withdrawals at casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere, Cypress also used tribe-issued American Express cards to charge $4 million for jewelry, clothingand other expenses during the more recent period.
Cypress also acquired nearly a dozen properties and residences, from Miami-Dade to Panama City Beach, worth a total of $4 million, the suit says.
In effect, the suit alleges Cypress used the Miccosukee Tribe’s investment account at Morgan Stanley as his own piggy bank, while footing the bill for meals, travel and other “personal benefits” to please his inner circle of professional advisors who turned a blind eye.
“This is a man who changed over money,” said one former Miccosukee employee, who did not want to be identified. “He’s not a bad man. He’s a man who liked helping other people. But he thought he could get whatever he wanted with money. He learned the technique from the white man.”
Among the defendants accused of helping him conceal his alleged thievery from other tribal members: Lehtinen and Lewis, the former U.S. attorneys; Lewis’ law partner, Tein; former senior Miccosukee financial officers Miguel Hernandez and Julio Martinez; and Morgan Stanley, the brokerage firm that held the tribe’s various financial accounts. Alexander Fernandez, the firm’s senior vice president who handled the Miccosukee Tribe as a client, was not named as a defendant but was identified in the suit.
In interviews this past week, some of the defendants said that Colley Billie, the new Miccosukee chairman, and his supporters have smeared Cypress to divert attention from their own ineptitude in managing the tribe.
Lehtinen said this latest suit shows the “rash irresponsibility of the Miccosukee Tribe in always blaming someone else for their problems, instead of themselves.”
“I was hired for particular matters,” he said. “I never had access to tribal credit card bills or records of withdrawals of tribal funds from Morgan Stanley or elsewhere.”
The tribe’s former chief financial officer, Martinez, who is accused of playing a key supporting role during Cypress’ tenure, said the Miccosukee tribal council under his leadership was fully aware of his spending.
“They were disclosed to the tribal leaders,” said Martinez, who now works for the Grand Ronde Tribe in Oregon.
Martinez, who worked for the Miccosukees for more than a decade, called “all of the allegations false and untrue — a complete fabrication.”