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Miccosukee Tribe ousts leader over $1 billion tax dispute with IRS

FILE--Colley Billie, chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, left, talks with Miami Springs photographer Robert Holmes about how he created the "Gigapixel Panorama" photograph of downtown Miami at night, during the inaugural West End Art Fair on Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Miami's Kendall community. Billie and his wife, Consuelo Billie, second from left, were among hundreds of visitors to the inaugural West End Art Fair. The tribe’s general council voted Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, to remove Billie, who has two years remaining in his second term, as he attempted to settle the nasty legal battle with the Internal Revenue Service and started to withhold taxes from casino gambling distributions to some 600 members — a step the IRS demanded in legal action.
FILE--Colley Billie, chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, left, talks with Miami Springs photographer Robert Holmes about how he created the "Gigapixel Panorama" photograph of downtown Miami at night, during the inaugural West End Art Fair on Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Miami's Kendall community. Billie and his wife, Consuelo Billie, second from left, were among hundreds of visitors to the inaugural West End Art Fair. The tribe’s general council voted Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, to remove Billie, who has two years remaining in his second term, as he attempted to settle the nasty legal battle with the Internal Revenue Service and started to withhold taxes from casino gambling distributions to some 600 members — a step the IRS demanded in legal action. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe has been ousted because of his efforts to resolve a longstanding dispute with the federal government over an income-tax bill now totaling more than $1 billion.

The tribe’s general council voted to remove Colley Billie, who has two years remaining in his second term, as he attempted to settle the nasty legal battle with the Internal Revenue Service and started to withhold taxes from casino gambling distributions to some 600 members — a step the IRS demanded in legal action.

The council, consisting of members of the West Miami-Dade County tribe, voiced its discontent in a petition accusing him 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 has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at its casino operation with bingo-style slot machines and poker.

And, the petition accused Billie of misappropriating unspecified funds for his own personal use.

“Colley Billie has failed to perform the duties of chairman and protect the resources and follow the ordinances and laws of the tribe,” declared the petition, which the council approved on Thursday.

Billie, who was elected as chairman in 2009 and reelected four years later, could not be reached. An attorney for the tribe, Steve Davis, said Tuesday that it declined to comment for this story. Billie has been replaced on an interim basis by the tribe’s assistant chairman, Roy Cypress Jr. The tribe is scheduled to hold an election for a new chairman in 2017.

In November 2013, Billie defeated his archenemy, Billy Cypress, by a slim margin of 23 votes for the leadership of the tribe.

After his victory, Billie said in a statement: “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.”

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 — with the Billie-led tribe filing lawsuits against Cypress and accusing him of stealing $26 million from Miccosukee bank accounts.

The power shift led to litigation that exposed once-tightly held secrets about the tribe’s economic engine, the casino complex off the Tamiami Trail on the edge of the Everglades. The tribe’s traditional distribution of those gaming profits — $120,000 to $160,000 yearly for each member — has turned into a massive income-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. Under federal law, those distributions are subject to both withholding and personal income taxes, according to the IRS.

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

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