Seminole Leaders Spend Lavishly


Story from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel


Last Update: 11/25/07 4:15 pm


MIAMI (AP) -- The Seminole Tribe of Florida's leaders have spent millions on

lavish homes, boxing rings, basketball courts and other gifts for themselves

and relatives as the tribe's gambling enterprise has expanded into

one of the nation's largest, a newspaper's investigation shows.


The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported in its Sunday editions that since 2000,

members of the Seminoles' Tribal Council have spent more than $280 million

from funds they control on such items as luxury vehicles, televisions

and stereo systems and cosmetic surgery for tribal members.


They also have paid for vacations, home repairs and criminal defense lawyers,

according to thousands of pages of tribal documents the newspaper reviewed,

including audits, budgets and council resolutions.


The spending has triggered audits by federal regulators and

complaints among Seminoles that the gambling profits benefit

certain members at the expense of the rest of the tribe.

Each of the tribe's almost 3,400 members receives about

$120,000 annually in profits a far cry from the

$100 annually each member received in 1979.


"I'm not sure we're functioning as a tribal government should, because

as far as the spending, we don't take enough steps to control it,"

tribal member Andrew Bowers Jr. told the Sun-Sentinel.

Bowers is a lawyer who served two years on the

Tribal Council before losing his seat in a May election.

"It's not being spent equally on everyone."


The tribe operates one of the most lucrative Indian gaming enterprises

in the country, including its recent purchase of the Hard Rock

International hotel and restaurant chain for nearly $1 billion.

It also recently signed a 25-year agreement with the state that

will allow it to offer Las Vegas-style slot machines,

black jack and baccarat at its six casinos.


The tribe could net hundreds of millions annually from the deal,

with the state receiving a minimum of $100 million annually.

The pact still needs federal approval and is facing legal challenges

from some members of the Legislature and possibly

from other gambling interests in the state.


Under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribes can spend gambling

profits only on five broad categories, including funding government

services and providing "for the general welfare of the tribe."


The tribe, considered a sovereign nation, is not obligated to open its records.

The Seminoles are subject to some federal laws but also have their own

government: a corporate board that controls the non-gambling enterprises

and the more powerful Tribal Council that governs the tribe.


A 2005 audit from outside accountants warned of a practice

"where certain council representatives can request and approve

checks to themselves under $10,000 without a second approval."

"We noted numerous expenditures below the $10,000 limit

occurring in round dollar amounts," the auditors wrote,

noting an increased risk of fraud.

The council did not adopt the auditors' recommendation

to require two approvals for checks.


Council member David Cypress alone has spent more than

$160 million since 1999, more than the other council members combined.

Cypress used some of that money to buy and remodel his own boxing gym

and spent millions on himself, his family and friends.


Tribal spokesman Gary Bitner said he wasn't aware of much of the spending

and said "most people connected with the tribe" were not either.


The Seminoles were the first U.S. tribe to offer high-stakes gambling

when they opened a bingo hall in 1979. In the next 30 years they added poker

and a toned-down version of slot machines and opened casinos on tribal land

in Immokalee, Tampa, Brighton, Coconut Creek, Hollywood and Big Cypress.


By 2005, members of the Tribal Council, some with only high school educations,

were overseeing a $1 billion-a-year empire and flying on the tribe's fleet

of helicopters and planes, including a $31 million Gulfstream IV jet

once owned by Jordan's late King Hussein.


Longtime council member Max Osceola Jr., designated by the tribe to

speak on behalf of the council, said council members and their families

have received the same assistance available to all Seminoles.

"I'm responsible for every Seminole member," Osceola said.

"It's not who my blood family is, it's not who my clan is.

It's the 3,320 Seminoles I'm responsible for."


Three tribal employees were accused of stealing $2.7 million from the

tribe to fund an Internet gambling operation in a 2002 federal trial.

Council members were also accused of spending tens of millions

on individual members outside of programs at a time when

the tribe's main source of income was its casinos.


Records and court testimony revealed David Cypress went through $57 million

from his discretionary allocation in the three and a half years before the trial.

The judge dismissed the charges before the case went to a jury.


Records introduced in the case showed council members' families were

among the biggest beneficiaries of the spending from 1999 through 2002.


From David Cypress' fund, 945 tribal members received assistance totaling $13.6 million.

Of those, 30 people got more than half the money, including Cypress' three daughters,

his ex-wife and brother, Tribal Chairman Mitchell Cypress, records show.


The Cypresses and their adult children have built lavish, gated compounds

with the help of tribal funds, the newspaper reported.

David Cypress himself received the most, $1.2 million.

He did not respond to written questions from the Sun-Sentinel

and refused to be interviewed by the newspaper.


The Associated Press could not immediately locate a listed telephone number

for David Cypress and he could not be reached for comment Sunday.

"I myself had no running water until back in '70, '71 when I moved

into a regular house," he testified in a 2002 court proceeding.

"I come from an Indian reservation where there is nothing but swamps,

Everglades. So when the money came in, we were on a spending spree."


Phil Hogen, the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission,

which regulates tribal spending of gambling profits, told the Sun-Sentinel

that the recent spending practices uncovered by the newspaper

"cry out for some inquiry, and they will receive that."


The commission has scheduled a visit to the tribe

in December to review its 2007 spending.

"I am surprised to learn that council members are expending dollars

of this magnitude," said Hogen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe


The IRS began an audit last year and requested tribal financial documents.

The agency declined comment. Within the tribe, Bowers and others have tried

to limit council members' spending and more equitably distribute wealth.

"We spend, spend, spend like we got all this free money," Bowers said.

"We just do what the heck we want to, whether it's fair or not."


Information from: South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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