By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
In Florida, open government laws guarantee the public’s right to access and make copies of state laws, local ordinances, public agency budgets and many other government records – like the salaries of the governor and city and county leaders.
In that regard, however, members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida are second-class citizens.
While they have the same rights as everyone else off the reservation, on Seminole land their sovereign government won’t let them obtain information about their governance that other Floridians take for granted. And should they speak out critically about their leaders, they can become targets for serious retribution.
The Seminoles, for example, don’t know how much tribal Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. or other tribal leaders or staff are paid, or details about how and with whom the tribe – one of the wealthiest in the country – spends its money. Except for the ordinances that establish the rules for the tribal courts, the tribe’s other laws and rules aren’t posted online and are generally inaccessible to members.
The right to public inspection of tribal ordinances, resolutions and all expenditures of tribal funds is enshrined in the Constitution and Bylaws of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. But dissident tribe members say those rights to public access are routinely ignored by the Seminole Tribe’s governing body, the Tribal Council, which decides what official information is and is not made available to members.
Last month, Tribal Clerk Jacob Ramos announced that the council had “put a hold on all record requests received by the clerk’s office. I’ve been advised you must make your request directly to the Tribal Council.”
“There is no public information with the tribe,” said activist tribe member Laura Billie. “They may make a presentation at a meeting where something is flashed on a screen, but we aren’t given any paperwork to look over.”
SEMINOLE TRIBE OF FLORIDA CONSTITUTION
The Seminole’s Constitution likewise guarantees freedom of speech. Even so, the Tribal Council recently moved to banish three Seminoles, including Laura Billie, for contacting off-reservation media – including Florida Bulldog – with allegations of corruption among tribal leaders.
The first step was taken Dec. 13 when the council voted 3-2 to approve resolutions temporarily banishing the trio for 60 days. On Jan. 3, the Seminole police served “tribal wide trespass affidavits” notifying them they are “unwelcome” and banned from all of the tribe’s “facilities and activities,” and warning they could be arrested for any violation.
The Seminole tribe’s secrecy practices are further evidenced in small print at the bottom of the police affidavit handed to Laura Billie. The language is inconceivable for inclusion on documents delivered by any other police department in Florida.
“This document is the confidential property of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Police Department,’’ it says. “This document may not be reproduced by any means, disseminated, or removed from the Seminole Police Department except for authorized purposes at the direction of the Chief of Seminole Police Department. Failure to comply with this Policy may result in disciplinary action which may include termination of employment, and/or the filing of any other action available to the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Police Department.”
The police refused to give Laura Billie a copy of the Tribal Council’s accompanying two-page resolution authorizing the affidavit and her “temporary banishment.”
“I told them I need to show it to my lawyer, but they said I couldn’t have a copy,” she said.
BANISHMENT RESOLUTION SNATCHED
But Laura’s cousin, fellow anti-corruption dissident Lesley Billie, managed to snatch a copy of the banishment resolution naming her out of the hands of the Seminole officer who came to her Miramar home to serve her with the trespass affidavit. The encounter was videotaped.
Tellingly, the resolution makes clear that instead of ordering an immediate investigation when the corruption allegations were first leveled in October, Osceola and two other council members simply declared the charges to be false, brushed off the notion of free speech, then flipped the script.
“Lesley Billie has made false and unsubstantiated negative allegations of corruption against the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Seminole Gaming and its elected officials and employees,” the resolution says. “The ramifications of these false and unsubstantiated negative allegations are serious and could jeopardize gaming licenses held by Seminole HR Holdings and other enterprises owned by the Seminole tribe of Florida and the loss of such licenses could have a devastating impact on the economic security” of the tribe.
“While members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida have the right to free speech, that right does not include making false and unsubstantiated negative allegations that could have devastating consequences for the Seminole Tribe of Florida and its members,” the resolution says. As a result, the council found it “necessary to take immediate action to confront this threat” and labeled Lesley Billie an individual “who seriously threatens the peace, health, safety, morals and general welfare” of the tribe.
Chairman Osceola and council members Christopher Osceola and Larry Howard voted to adopt the banishment resolution. Members Mitchell Cypress and Mariann Billie – who is unrelated to the Billie cousins – voted no.
The Tribal Council’s next meeting is Jan. 20, where further action may be considered to disenroll the Billies and another anti-corruption protestor, Virgil “Benny” Motlow of Hendry County.
Such a move could have drastic consequences; the tribe has powerful economic control over its members. Seminoles banished from the tribe could forfeit monthly $10,500 checks sent to each of its approximately 4,300 members. The checks are dividends from the tribe’s enormous worldwide casino gambling profits via its ownership of Hard Rock International. It could also mean the loss of freedom to live or travel on any of the Seminoles’ six reservations, the biggest of which is in Hollywood.
Laura Billie lives on the Hollywood reservation.
The Seminole tribe is especially secretive with outsiders. Its non-Indian neighbors in Florida aren’t allowed to attend or listen in online to the Tribal Council’s meetings, nor can they obtain from the tribal clerk the minutes of the council’s meetings or any of the tribe’s other internal records.
To make matters worse, the monthly Seminole Tribune newspaper doesn’t cover Tribal Council meetings. The paper, a creature of the Tribal Council, “only prints happy news,” said one tribal member who asked not to be publicly identified.
That insularity, combined with virtually no internal oversight, give the Tribal Council not only sway over a multi-billion-dollar casino empire, but what amounts to unchecked control over the lives and fortunes of tribe members.