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Protect your money, rights

James E. BillieVery disturbing. That’s the best way to describe unscrupulous people out there who try to take advantage of Seminoles when they find out we have money. It’s a growing problem that we all must address. You know who these people are. You’ve seen them stalking our Tribal members, you’ve witnessed them pressuring Tribal members and overselling them vehicles or overcharging for repairs or pushing us into loans or mortgages we can never repay.

They do this just because we are Seminoles.

And because they know we won’t complain.

We must be vigilant and expect to be treated differently when certain corrupt persons find out we are Seminole Indians. You see, the average wealthy person, I believe, will barter and bicker, back and forth, with sales people and others who may be trying to separate the man from his money. Unfortunately, the average Seminole will just pay the bill rather than complain about the price. This characteristic is then passed on from retailer to retailer, the most dishonest of whom will jack prices up and inflate charges, knowing that the Seminole is not going to argue but will just pay the bill.

It happens with everyone from the car salesman to the drug dealer, even including the so-called caretakers who are supposed to look after our Seminole elders but who often resort to unfair costs they would never dare to impose on seniors in other communities.

This unfortunate situation has grown up through the actions of our recent Tribal administration – not all of the leaders – but three of the top people in our system, men who were ripping their own people off, creating an atmosphere where Tribal members could not complain or object nor question what was going on. Those leaders are gone now but that attitude they nurtured – to pay the bill with no questions asked – continues on with many Seminoles when they go to the dealerships and the banks and the stores and buy new cars and houses and clothes.

As the people watched silently, these Tribal leaders turned away from the best interests of their constituents in favor of kickbacks. For example: a typical chickee hut is going to cost $18-$20 a square foot built on the reservation. But these leaders would allow someone to charge the Tribe $30-40 a square foot, which would include their kickback, of course. Though Tribal members knew they were getting ripped off, they kept their mouths shut. People in the government system with a job knew there was a price to pay in getting and keeping a job, so they chose to stay quiet.

But you can be assured the present administration is doing what it can to get our business back into proper order, to protect Tribal members and ensure the quality of their existence on this earth. Current employees are learning that it is no longer business as it used to be. This Council is sticking together. We are going through every department, cleaning it out and trying to get back to normal. We are changing policies, programs and the whole structure. We will not be held down by the policies and procedures of the previous administration.

As the Tribe changes its way of doing business, so too must Tribal members. You must always remember there are people out there who want to take advantage of you. They make it their business to know what days you get your dividends. Some of them have stalked Tribal members as they walked out of the casino, begging for money.

I would advise all Tribal members to use direct deposit between the Tribe and your bank. It is a very easy and effective way to protect your money. I can understand why some Seminoles feel nervous about keeping their money in a bank, especially when we see all the bad news on TV or in the newspapers about banks failing and the U.S. government in a financial crisis. Many have lost their confidence in letting other people hold our money.

But right now, however, there is no better system. I hope you will have confidence in us. As Tribal leaders we will attempt to stay ahead of the game and keep our eyes and ears open to these issues, so we can alert Tribal members and take our own measures to circumvent any such trouble.

As the Tribe has prospered, it has become a dangerous time when our kids turn 18 and get access to their money, which the Tribe has saved for them all these years. We have already heard many stories where irresponsible spending has drained bank accounts in a short amount of time. Mortgages, money lenders, overpriced vehicles – some have fallen victim to drug dealers. Every 18-year-old person thinks he or she knows more than the people ahead of them. We all know that at the age of 18 you know everything there is to know in the world. . . . until you get totally screwed and come back to the Tribe asking for help and you hear us say, “I told you so.”

Tribal youth, come to the Tribe for advice BEFORE it’s too late. Please have the common sense to be aware of those who suddenly show up to take advantage of you when you receive your money. Parents, watch out for your offspring, help them, give them advice. The youth may not realize this, but you know that once the money is gone, it ain’t comin’ back.

This administration is determined to see you through all of these situations. We are determined to keep on the right track where we can benefit from, and maintain, our newfound wealth.

Right now we are hard at work on our budget and when the new budget has been passed, I will establish a date for all Tribal members to meet together under one roof, so we can explain the state the Tribe is in. We will discuss our problems regarding future enrollment, what circumstances will affect our dividends to be raised or lowered and bring you up to date on what monies have been spent right under your noses over the past 10 years. We will review a very serious potential problem that may bring our income down because of new casinos opening up around us.

While the rest of the United States and world is cutting down on employment, our previous leaders over-employed; the so-called sophisticated COOs (Chief Operating Officers) put in place several years back to increase our efficiency and better manage our income actually doubled the size of the government! While other governments of the world were laying off and cutting back on expenses, Seminole Tribe kept employing and employing and spending and spending. We are trying to curtail this now.

We will bring all these issues, everything, back into focus at our General Assembly. We will listen to our constituents. We want to know their insights on what we are doing and their feelings on how well we are doing. I hope to schedule this before Christmas. Sho naa bisha.

– James E. Billie is Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

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