By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
On May 8, members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida will vote on who will lead their government and oversee their multi-billion-dollar Hard Rock gambling empire for the next four years.
Up for grabs are all seats on the five-member Tribal Council, the chief governing body, and the five-member board of directors of the The Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc., a federal corporation whose principal purpose is to further the tribe’s economic development, although oddly its 13 business enterprises don’t include its multi-billion-dollar business – casino gambling.
At the apex of the Seminole’s power structure is Marcellus Osceola Jr., who is both chairman of the Tribal Council and, by virtue of his chairmanship, Vice President of the Board of Directors of STOF Inc. Tribe members say he’s running for re-election, although he did not respond to a request for comment and the Seminole’s Supervisor of Elections’ office has said candidates won’t be publicly announced until April 20 – two days after the deadline for candidates to submit completed applications to run.
To the outside world, Osceola is best known as the Seminole Tribe leader who, with Gov. Ron DeSantis, signed a 30-year gambling compact in April 2021 guaranteeing Florida $2.5 billion over the first five years and $6 billion and more to follow. That’s in exchange for the state allowing the tribe to add roulette and craps to its casino operations, plus giving it statewide control of sports betting in Florida. A federal judge later nullified the compact, finding it violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, after the owner of Miami’s Magic City Casino sued. The case is now on appeal, and neither sports betting nor Seminole payments to the state have begun.
[In August-September 2022, as DeSantis was campaigning for re-election, the Seminole Tribe of Florida made two contributions totaling $2 million to the governor’s political action committee (PAC) Friends of Ron DeSantis, state election records show.]
The empire Osceola sits atop gushes cash. And much of that gambling revenue flows to select tribal members through contracts for ancillary services like marketing, valet parking, bus limos and ATMs about which little is known – and critics contend benefit a favored few, including Chairman Osceola.
How much? In February 2021, Hardrock International Chairman James Allen, who is also CEO of Seminole Gaming, told a tribe member in a text message obtained by Florida Bulldog that “last year we have issue(d) contracts of 94,276,463 million dollars to tribal members. This is 31.3 percent of the total dollars spent.” Or $301 million. (Earlier, we erroneously reported the number as $29.5 million.)
FBI EYES CORRUPTION ALLEGATIONS
Osceola, 50, is a controversial figure within the tribe. In October, he barely fended off a recall petition that accused him, among other things, of a “pattern of corrupt behavior and judgment.” Osceola denied all the allegations made against him at an Oct. 10 special council meeting at which tribal members were not allowed to speak, according to members who attended. Meetings are closed to outsiders.
The Tribal Council has taken no apparent steps to investigate the corruption charges. One agency that could be tapped to investigate is the Seminole Police. The police report to the Tribal Council and until April 15 took orders from police chief and department of public safety director Will Latchford, who just retired. But Latchford had a conflict of his own – he’s married to Marcellus Osceola’s cousin, Amy Osceola Latchford.
The FBI, however, has taken notice. After a copy of the petition and other information was sent to an agent at the FBI’s Miami Field Office, Special Agent Jaquonna Lott sent a Jan. 10 email to tribe dissident Laura Billie, whom Osceola ordered to “cease and desist’ from talking to Florida Bulldog about tribal corruption in a Dec. 6 letter, and later temporarily banished from tribal lands along with two other members.
“Some additional concerns of the Seminole Tribe (have) come to the attention of the FBI. With that being said you will be contacted by additional FBI Special Agents in the next couple of days regarding Tribal matters,” Lott wrote.
Billie said last week that she has not yet heard from those agents.
Marcellus Osceola Jr. is the grandson of Seminole’s first Tribal Council Chairman Bill Osceola, but his mother was non-Seminole, a Caucasian, so he is not a member of any of the eight clans within the tribe’s matriarchal lineage. He has been Tribal Council chairman since Jan. 9, 2017, when he won a special election to replace James Billie, the brash chieftain who was ousted via a recall petition. Osceola won a full four-year term in 2019.
ALLEGED CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Florida Bulldog obtained a copy of the 44-page recall petition, including exhibits, that lay out the numerous grievances of tribal dissidents. It was signed by 285 members, more than the required 20 percent who voted in the 2019 election that Osceola won.
The petition features more than a half-dozen charges, the most disturbing of which involve Osceola’s alleged conflicts of interest.
Unlike Florida, the sovereign nation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida has no requirement that elected and other government officials file annual financial disclosure reports. So tribal members seeking to learn about a tribal council member’s personal business must rely on other information sources.
State corporate records show Osceola co-founded Casino Limo Corporation, which does business as Corporate Coaches, in 2004. The petition says the company has a “lucrative” business providing transportation for both Hard Rock customers and employees.
Corporate Coaches, which bills itself online as the “official transportation provider of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, issued 100 shares of stock upon its establishment, but doesn’t say how ownership was split. Osceola was listed as president and his partner, Andrew R. Barder, was vice president.
“It appears that Tribal Council Members can engage in their personal business with the tribe, which is inconsistent with their obligations to the Seminole Tribe and is a direct violation of the tribe’s Conflict of Interest Ordinance,” says the petition, written by Laura Billie.
OSCEOLA DENIES ANY WRONGDOING
But during the October recall hearing, Osceola denied any wrongdoing. The petition “says that I’m still collecting cash royalties from this business, which I am not, because I’m not the owner of that business,” Osceola said, according to a transcript of the proceedings. He noted that state corporate records show that on Feb. 6, 2017 “this company was transferred over to one Brittany Macias.”
Osceola did not mention that Brittany Macias, a Hollywood resident, was his sister-in-law. Nor did Osceola mention that he was Casino Limo’s president when he was sworn in as chairman on Jan. 10, 2017.
Today, Macias continues to be listed on state corporate records as Casino Limo’s president. Oddly, however, Corporate Coach’s website has a picture of Andrew Barder and his wife, Laurie, who are identified as the company’s president and CEO. Putative president Brittany Macias isn’t mentioned.
A second alleged violation of the tribe’s conflict-of-interest ordinance involved a pair of corporations Osceola established during the pandemic in October 2021 and February 2022. One of those is called Etcha Relations LLC. Osceola’s partner in that business: Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner.
The tribe’s COI policy says, “Council members should avoid any action, whether or not specifically prohibited by the standards of conduct that could cause or create the appearance of: A. Exercising their official duties for the advancement of their own self-interest.”
“While the entire world was under stay-at-home order,” the petition says. “The Tribal Chairman closed all tribal offices, discontinued Tribal Council briefings with tribal members, and neglected to provide tribal members briefings via Webex (the tribe’s internal online communications system); whereby tribal members could address their grievances.
“During this time, the chairman used his official duties for the advancement of his own self-interest by establishing two new personal businesses, while knowing he is in violation of the (COI) ordinance. He has taken advantage of his position, time and salary to meet with his personal business partners to establish new businesses for himself,” the petition says.
At the October recall meeting, Osceola called it “another false accusation, and again there’s really no supporting documents for most of this again. It’s just accusations. A smear campaign in my opinion to my character, to my integrity which I think people are sued for, for a lot less.”
While Osceola wouldn’t be interviewed about Etcha Relations, Commissioner Karson Turner did speak. He told Florida Bulldog he partnered with Osceola because he was “absolutely impressed with the conversations and the level of thought processes I witnessed every time I talked with the man.”
What was Etcha Relation’s business? “There’s a myriad of ways to answer that,” he said. “I was contemplating, you know, I’m in heavy construction. And I felt that there was a number of, well, some possibilities.”
“Hendry County doesn’t do business per se with the tribe, but Hendry County has an incredible relationship with the Seminole Tribe. They’re, you know, the definition of a power player in our region and we do everything in our power to make sure that we have a good relationship with them,” Turner said.
Still, while Etcha Relations is an active for-profit corporation, Turner said he unilaterally “pulled the plug on it” before the company got any work, and without discussing it with Osecola.
“I felt, you know, it just had the ability to have bad optics associated with it,” Turner said.
The petition contained a number of other accusations against Osceola, all denied by the chairman:
- That he would not let tribal members sit on an investment committee for the newly established Sovereign Wealth Fund that was created to facilitate real estate investments and create generational wealth for tribe members. Also, that Osceola allowed friends, non-Seminoles employed by the tribe, to profit from “large” cash bonuses paid to committee members.
- He mismanaged federal COVID funds by distributing large sums to a handful of winners through a lottery dubbed “Shot of a Lifetime”. The big winner, of $1 million, was identified only as a Hollywood resident who lives off the reservation. “However, tribal members have knowledge that the Chairman’s illegitimate son, who is a minor, was the million-dollar winner,” the petition said.
- Osceola sought to “undermine the authority” of the tribe’s other governing body – the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc. “and its entire business” by failing to participate in meetings of its board of directors from April 2019 to April 2021. His actions represented a “premeditated motive for his deliberate and overt actions to demoralize the board’s authority to achieve his own self-interest before the interest of the Seminole Tribe.
A ‘HOLY MAN’ IS FIRED
Some of the harshest language in the petition had to do with Chairman Osceola’s alleged involvement in arranging a 2019 contract for an ethnographic study of the Seminoles that some members viewed as an invasion of their private culture and sacred religious practices.
The petition says the chairman “deliberately bypassed the regulatory procedures of adopting a resolution for a contract of $200,000 between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and North Wind Resources Consulting LLC.”
North Wind Resources, based in Idaho Falls, ID, is described on its website as “thriving company of more than 2,100 employees with revenues approaching $600 million.”
The petition says members learned that the contract included specific tasks to be completed by outside ethnographers that “are oppressive to tribal members who practice the traditions and preservation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.”
In March 2022, at what the petition said was the first in-person council briefing in two years, “it was discovered that tribal members were not allowed to review the contract without signing a gag order form; as a result, employees were unjustly terminated without due process.” The petition said the two who were fired included the Seminole’s “holy man,” who opposed the contract.
According to the petition, Osceola and the Tribal Council have sewn distrust because they didn’t inform members in advance “about the study of our people” and by not consulting tribal elders and others regarding tribal culture, tradition, language and plans to map “our sacred sites within the Everglades,” including burial grounds.
“The conduct of tyranny displayed by Tribal Council against Tribal members is a threat to the very essence of our people and has caused interference with the traditional religious practices and preservation of tribal customs,” the petition says. Osceola’s “conduct of disrespect to tribal members demonstrates a disconnect, due to his lack of knowledge and participation in tribal culture, sacred ceremonies and language.”
MAJORITY DOESN’T RULE
The Tribal Council voted 3-1 to remove Chairman Osceola. Voting to remove him were Mitchell Cypress, who is also president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc., Mariann Billie and Larry Howard. Chris Osceola voted to keep the chairman.
But the majority did not rule.
As the council prepared to vote Tribal Secretary LaVonne Rose announced that a vote of four-fifths of the council was required for the recall to be approved. And because Marcellus Osceola would not be voting, that meant a unanimous vote was required to remove him.
Under the Seminole Constitution there are two ways recalls can be handled. If the Tribal Council initiates a removal, a four-fifths vote is required. But the constitution is silent on the number of votes needed for removal when a verified voters’ petition is considered by the council.
In 2016, during the recall of James Billie, then council member Andrew Bowers Jr. told his colleagues that “it’s been interpreted through our legal people that on the voters petition a majority vote is needed for removal, not four-fifths,” according to a meeting transcript.
The tribe’s general counsel who was present at Chief Billie’s 2016 ouster, was Jim Shore. Shore remains general counsel today.
But last October, when Osceola’s chairmanship was on the line, Shore ignored his earlier legal opinion.
Moments after the vote, and amid rising tensions, Secretary Rose asked, “Hang on everybody I’m getting confirmation from Mr. Shore. So Mr. Shore, the vote is 3-1 not a complete 4 so could you advise on what happens next, does this petition die?”
“Yeah, or the petition failed anyway,” replied Shore, the tribe’s new kingmaker.