The Miccosukee Tribe has lost a bruising legal fight in Miami federal court against its one-time chairman Billy Cypress, accused of stealing millions, and its former lawyers, accused of collaborating with him.
But the battle will likely continue in state court.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke tossed the West Miami-Dade tribe’s lawsuit against Cypress and others, saying the key racketeering claim did not belong in federal court but should instead be heard in Miami-Dade Circuit Court or the tribe’s own court. “Despite every effort of the Miccosukee Tribe to bring this battle to the doorstep of the federal courthouse, the door cannot open to allow an intra-tribal dispute of this nature,” Cooke wrote in her 19-page decision, issued Monday.
The judge made no ruling on the suit’s allegations of theft, fraud and misrepresentation but did take note of the feud’s nastiness, predicting it will continue to rage.
“I am quite certain that this omnibus order will affect minimally the incessant litigation and sour relations between the parties,” she concluded, before quoting Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader who advocated non-violence. “I simply implore the parties to heed that ‘an eye for eye will only make the whole world blind.’ ’’
Last year, the Miccosukee Tribe turned against its former chairman with a vengeance, accusing Cypress of stealing $26 million from the tribe to spend on numerous gambling trips, shopping sprees, real estate investments and luxury cars.
Cypress, who was voted out as chairman in late 2009, was accused of conspiring with two former Miccosukee financial officers and two ex-tribe lawyers Dexter Lehtinen and Guy Lewis, both one-time U.S. attorneys in Miami, to keep the Miccosukees in the dark about his alleged “criminal enterprise.” The tribe’s Miami brokerage firm, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, which maintained Miccosukee financial accounts, was also sued.
“We have said all along that this tribal dispute does not belong in federal court, and we are gratified that the court agrees,” said Bryan West, an attorney with the Tew Cardenas law firm, where Lehtinen was hired after the tribe fired him in 2010. Separately, the tribe has sued Lehtinen for malpractice in state court.
In the federal suit, the Miccosukee Tribe portrayed Cypress, who served as chairman for 22 years, as a serial “thief” provided “protection” by a coterie of exorbitantly paid professionals who never alerted other tribal members about his “misappropriations.”
During Cypress’ reign as chairman, the Miccosukee Tribe said it paid Lehtinen’s law firm $50 million over nearly 20 years for a variety of tribal services, including providing advice on water management issues in the Everglades and on income taxes stemming from the tribe’s distribution of casino gambling profits to members.
In the racketeering suit, the tribe accused Lehtinen of misrepresenting that the Miccosukees had set up a reserve fund under Cypress to pay withholding taxes on those gaming distributions to about 600 members.
The tribe claimed the fund never existed. But in court papers filed last month, the Miccosukees admitted the account was created with $14.5 million in 2004 and that it grew over the next four years to $76.6 million under Cypress. By the time he was replaced as chairman by Colley Billie in January 2010, there was $18.6 million in the fund, because most of the money had been transferred to other tribal accounts, according to the court filing.
As for Lewis, the tribe said it paid his law firm about $11 million since 2005. Lewis and his partner, Michael Tein, represented the tribe on tax matters but mostly defended Cypress and other Miccosukee members on individual legal problems, such as income-tax evasion and vehicular homicide.
In the racketeering suit, the tribe’s legal team accused Lewis and Tein of conspiring with Cypress to enrich themselves at the expense of the Miccosukees.
The suit asserted “the Miccosukee Tribe and the Miccosukee people were unable to discover this massive web of financial theft, embezzlement and fraud until 2010.”
Paul Calli, an attorney for Lewis and Tein, aggressively fought the tribe’s allegations, saying repeatedly they were “frivolous” while personally attacking the Miccosukees’ attorney, Bernardo Roman III. Calli did not respond to a Miami Herald request for comment Wednesday.
Separately, the tribe has sued Lewis and Tein for malpractice in state court.
In recent years, the tribe’s airing of its own dirty laundry, especially in light of a separate Internal Revenue Service civil probe of its in-house gambling distributions to Miccosukee members, has been unprecedented.
The racketeering suit detailed a total of $11.5 million in ATM withdrawals by Cypress at casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere, along with an additional $4 million in American Express charges for jewelry, restaurants and other expenses, between 2005 and 2009. Cypress also acquired nearly a dozen properties and residences, from Miami-Dade to Panama City Beach, worth a total of $4 million.