South Florida

Ousted chairman Cypress regains leadership of Miccosukee Tribe

Billy Cypress, shown in this Sept. 22, 2004, file photo, regained the chairmanship in a special election on Sunday. He defeated the interim chairman, Roy Cypress Jr.
Billy Cypress, shown in this Sept. 22, 2004, file photo, regained the chairmanship in a special election on Sunday. He defeated the interim chairman, Roy Cypress Jr. Miami Herald staff

Billy Cypress, a symbol of the Miccosukee Tribe's income-tax war with the federal government, has returned to power as chairman.

Cypress, who had lost his power over the 600-member West Miami-Dade tribe in 2009, regained the chairmanship in a special election on Sunday. He defeated the interim chairman, Roy Cypress Jr.

The special election was held after Cypress’ rival, Colley Billie, was ousted by the tribe’s general council in November. Billie’s efforts to resolve a longstanding dispute between the tribe and U.S. government over a $1 billion-plus tax bill backfired politically.

Cypress, who is personally battling an Internal Revenue Service lawsuit over millions of dollars in unreported income, took a tough stand during his re-election campaign against the IRS’ crackdown on the tribe’s income from its casino profits. Cypress, who previously led the tribe for almost two decades, could not be reached for comment.

In the fall, the general council had voted to remove Billie, who had two years remaining in his second term, as he attempted to settle the tribe’s ongoing dispute with the IRS and started to withhold taxes from casino gambling distributions to tribal members — a step the agency demanded in legal action.

The council, consisting of tribal members, voiced its discontent in a petition accusing Billie of depleting $82 million from a reserve account set aside for paying back taxes owed to the IRS. In the impeachment petition, the council also highlighted that at Billie's direction, the tribe lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at its casino operation with bingo-style slot machines and poker.

Billie, who was elected as chairman in 2009 and reelected four years later, was replaced on an interim basis by the tribe's assistant chairman, Roy Cypress Jr.

For decades, the Miccosukee kept their business largely private, using their sovereign status as a shield in countless civil and criminal legal cases with outsiders. But the tribe’s tax troubles came to light during an internal rift, which generated lawsuits accusing Cypress of stealing $26 million from Miccosukee bank accounts, including casino profits.

The tribe's traditional distribution of gaming income — $120,000 to $160,000 yearly for each member — has turned into a massive tax liability dating back more than a decade.

Unlike other tribes with casino operations in the United States, the Miccosukee Tribe has never submitted a “revenue allocation plan” with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which specifies how the funds are to be spent on general services, such as housing, education and healthcare, as well as for income distributions to members.

According to a lawsuit in state court, the IRS estimates that Miccosukee tribal members owe personal income taxes totaling $280 million and an additional $160 million in penalties and interest.

The IRS estimates that the tribe itself owes more than $262 million in unpaid withholding taxes and an additional $441 million in penalties and interest.

  Comments