The Miccosukee tribe

Miccosukee leader wins re-election, vowing legal fights against rival, top lawyers, IRS

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

A slim margin of 23 votes decided the hotly contested leadership of the Miccosukee Tribe, with much riding on Colley Billie’s reelection victory over his archenemy, ousted former chairman Billy Cypress.

The outcome guarantees that the West Miami-Dade tribe will move forward with its multimillion-dollar legal fights against Cypress and two high-profile lawyers close to him who once represented the Miccosukees.

If Cypress had regained the title of chairman in this month’s election, the tribe’s $26 million embezzlement case against him and its legal-malpractice suits against fired tribal lawyers Dexter Lehtinen and Guy Lewis — both former U.S. attorneys in Miami — would likely have been dropped.

Billie, who won the Nov. 10 election by a 151-128 vote, will be sworn in Tuesday for another four-year term.

“As we have done over the last four years, my administration will continue to protect and preserve for future generations the Miccosukee way of life, our tribe’s sovereignty, economic prosperity and the Everglades,” Billie said in a statement Wednesday.

The 600-member tribe has been in the public eye more than ever.

For decades, the Miccosukees kept their business largely private, using their sovereign status as a shield in countless civil and criminal legal cases with outsiders. But Billie’s ouster of Cypress in late 2009, after his two-decade reign as chairman, led to an era of bad blood spilling into the public arena.

The power shift led to litigation that exposed once-tightly held secrets about the tribe’s economic engine, a casino-gambling operation with bingo-style slot machines and poker. The tribe’s traditional distribution of those gaming profits — $120,000 yearly for each member — has turned into a massive income-tax liability.

Now, in the aftermath of the latest election, the tribe has filed a sprawling lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, accusing Cypress and others, including Lewis and Lehtinen, of conspiring to defraud tens of millions of dollars from the tribe. Both lawyers represented the tribe in a hostile tax dispute with the Internal Revenue Service, among other legal services.

The tribe’s state complaint was originally brought as a racketeering civil case in Miami federal court, but a judge dismissed it last month.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke made no decision 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.’ ’’

In the new state suit, the Billie-led tribe has accused Cypress of stealing $26 million to spend on numerous gambling trips, shopping sprees, real-estate investments, and luxury cars. More than half of that alleged embezzlement was attributed to cash advances and credit-card charges on his tribe-issued American Express card, mostly involving transactions in Las Vegas.

The tribe portrayed Cypress as a serial “thief” who was provided “protection” by a coterie of exorbitantly paid professionals, such as Lewis and Lehtinen, who never alerted other tribal members about his “misappropriations.”

Cypress routinely chartered private jets for trips to Las Vegas and other gambling venues, bringing Lewis and his partner, Michael Tein, on some of those excursions.

The most-expensive trip was to Italy in July 2008, when Cypress billed the tribe for the $59,184 round-trip chartered flight from Miami to Rome.

In an April deposition, Lewis said he brought his wife and daughter on the week-long trip to Italy, saying its purpose was for the Miccosukee chairman to discuss the tribe’s passport with Interpol authorities and to meet with Vatican officials. They gave Cypress, Lewis, and the others a tour of the Sistine Chapel.

“Through various friendships and professional relationships, I had gotten Chairman Cypress a meeting with some Vatican officials,” Lewis said in the deposition — though, when asked, he could not recall the names of any of them.

Lewis said the chairman was interested in learning about the Vatican as a separate entity within Italy — similar to the tribe’s status in the United States.

In 2005-2010, the tribe said it paid Lewis’ law firm about $11 million. Lewis and Tein, also a former federal prosecutor, represented the tribe on tax matters. But they mostly defended Cypress and other Miccosukee members on individual legal problems, including the former chairman’s income-tax dispute with the IRS and a fatal car-crash case that resulted in a $3.2 million judgment. The 2009 jury award, now owed by the tribe based on a judge’s order, has still not been paid to the victim’s family.

The tribe’s legal team accused Lewis and Tein of conspiring with Cypress to enrich themselves at the expense of the Miccosukees.

Paul Calli, an attorney for Lewis and Tein, aggressively fought the tribe’s allegations, saying repeatedly they were “frivolous” while personally criticizing the Miccosukees’ attorney, Bernardo Roman III. Neither Calli nor Lewis responded to a Miami Herald request for comments Wednesday.

Separately, the tribe has sued Lewis and Tein for malpractice in state court, accusing them of putting Cypress’ interests before those of the tribe and its members. The malpractice case is scheduled for trial in early January.

During Cypress’ reign as chairman, the tribe said it paid Lehtinen’s law firm $50 million over nearly 20 years for a variety of 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.

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. The tribe claimed the fund never existed. But later, the Miccosukees admitted the reserve was created nearly a decade ago. Lehtinen and his lawyer, Bryan West, could not be reached for comments but have said the tribe’s fraud case is baseless.

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