James E. Billie, chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida during a period of soaring casino revenues, was removed from office Wednesday morning.
The tribal council voted 4-0 on the removal, acting on a recall petition filed by tribal members that cited various issues with policies and procedures in the chairman’s office. The move takes effect immediately.
Billie, 72, was chairman when the Seminoles decided to open a bingo hall that grew crowds as payouts approached tens of thousands of dollars. That move, at what is now known as Seminole Classic Casino, launched high-stakes bingo at Indian casinos across the nation after the Supreme Court determined that tribes’ sovereignty made them exempt from civil laws. Bingo is legal in Florida, but civil laws require stakes to be low.
The tribe last year garnered about $2 billion in revenues, at seven properties, including one in Tampa, which Billie helped start after Indian remains were discovered there, making the property sacred land.
“I made it my business to bring money, lots of money, in to the Seminole Tribe and its citizens,” he said in an earlier interview.
Billie was elected in 1979 after returning from Vietnam, then impeached in 2001 because of financial issues. He was re-elected in 2011, then suffered a stroke in 2012 and has walked with a cane since. He also won re-election in 2015.
Billie wrestled alligators as a youth, and is considered one of the tribe’s most colorful characters. Large photos of Billie greet customers at Seminole casinos, including those of him as a strapping young adult. They are accompanied by “Sho-na-bish,” which means “thank you.”
Billie also became friends with Donald Trump about a decade ago, being a judge at Trump’s beauty contests, playing in a band that entertained at a Trump party and even naming an alligator on the tribe’s Big Cypress reservation as “Trump.” Trump had visited the Big Cypress reservation, courting Billie in an attempt to establish a casino partnership.
Billie wasn’t afraid to engage in braggadocio, asserting that his 22-year chairmanship from 1979-2001 was the “longest tenure of any elected leader in the Western Hemisphere, other than Fidel Castro.”
“A very personable and entertaining man,” said Steve Norton, a former Argosy president who tried to negotiate a partnership with the tribe.
The move to oust Billie is in accordance with the process spelled out in the Constitution of the Seminole Tribe of Florida adopted in 1957. The tribe will conduct a special election to elect a new chairman within 30 days.
More than 100 members, including Billie, attended the open meeting at the Seminole Tribe of Florida headquarters. Those voting were: Mitchell Cypress, vice chairman; Christopher Osceola, who represents the Hollywood Seminole Reservation; Cicero Osceola, who represents the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation; and Andrew Bowers Jr., who represents the Brighton Seminole Reservation.
Neither Billie nor anyone else related to the tribe was available for comment Wednesday.