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Tribal chairman’s binge spending led to bad blood

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.

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.

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.”