"Sleeping Gator" Snaps Back At St. Pete Times, Reporters
Lawsuit Charges Racism, Criminal Violations
By Dan McDonald
FORT LAUDERDALE - The Seminole Tribe of Florida filed a lawsuit in the 17th Judicial Circuit Court, Feb. 12, charging the Times Publishing Co. (doing business as) The St. Petersburg Times and reporters Bradley Goldstein and Jeff Testerman with racism and other violations of ethical, civil and criminal law.
"If you keep poking and poking a sleeping gator, eventually he's going to turn around and snap back at you," said Seminole Tribal Chairman James E. Billie, referring to the Times oddball 18-month investigation into the government, business and private lives of Seminole Tribal members and employees. The newspaper has published several articles - including a major series - that shed a negative light on the Tribe and have had journalism ethics experts scratching their heads.
"They can report on the Seminole Indians all they want, but they can't go into our classified areas and mess around with innocent peoples' private lives," said Chairman Billie, a main target of the Times probe. "We don't ask their employees to steal their private files. We don't call up and harass their relatives. Now let's see how those reporters feel to have the heat turned on them."
The suit was filed in the Broward court by the West Palm Beach legal firm of Kamen and Orlovsky. It accuses reporters Goldstein (who no longer works for the Times) and Testerman with unethical and illegal reporting techniques and conspiring to write and publish articles that would hold the Tribe and its leadership up to "humiliation, embarrassment and scorn." The suit describes the work of the two reporters as "tabloid style . . . racially motivated . . . designed to rekindle anti-Indian hatred and discrimination directed at the Seminole Tribe and its Chairman."
"The exposes are racially motivated in nature," says the suit, "and seek to ascribe to the Seminole Tribe and its leadership racist stereotypes regarding Indians as savage, uncivilized and corrupt." The suit alleges the Times articles sought to "create the impression that the Seminole Tribe and its leadership are linked to organized crime."
Testerman and Goldstein, the suit further alleges, sought "to bring about community hatred toward the Tribe and its leadership," similar to the "genocidal" policies of the 19th century U.S. government. The suit details the Tribe's legendary fight against that oppression, including the broken treaties, the capture of Osceola beneath a flag of truce and the decapitation of the great leader's corpse - "enduring evidence of racial hatred and as punishment for the Florida Seminoles' refusal to be subjugated to federal conquest."
The Times, which calls itself Florida's Best Newspaper, is charged with failing to properly supervise its employees. The suit declares that despite the "historical atrocities" associated with the U.S. government's "Trail of Tears" removal policy - which nearly exterminated the Florida Indians - "the defendants trivialize the issue and make a mocking reference to the Trail of Tears as the 'Trail of Millions.'" (That was the title of the Times December 1997 series)
Efforts by the reporters to induce Tribal employees, a certified public accountant and a commissioned U.S. Public Health Service officer and others to "steal" or otherwise procure "confidential, proprietary and secret" government and personal records are also detailed in the suit.
Goldstein's bizarre letter to Chairman's Assistant Pat Diamond is quoted in full as evidence of the "defendants' unlawful plan to induce tribal employees and agents to breach their fiduciary relationships to the Tribe in order to assist the defendants in making unlawful and improper use of the Tribe's governmental documentation and information for the purpose of preparing a tabloid style expose to boost newspaper sales and foster anti-Indian racism and hatred in the community."
The scheme backfired, however, when those contacted by the Times reporters "honored their fiduciary duties to the Seminole Tribe by bringing to the attention of tribal leadership the unlawful and improper news and information gathering activities on the part of the defendants," declares the suit.
The Tribe seeks punitive damages in excess of $15,000, court and attorneys fees and a declaration that the actions of the Times and its reporters are unlawful and unethical and designed to "encourage widespread community feelings of anti-Indian hatred." The Tribe asked the court for an injunction against any further misconduct by the Times; the identities of all individuals who furnished the Times with confidential information; and the return of all such documentation."
In a story published in the Feb. 18 Times, the newspaper's attorney George Rahdert commented, "On its face, this lawsuit seeks to silence news coverage about a gambling enterprise which has separated a lot of money from a lot of people in Florida."
A national expert on the First Amendment, Rahdert added, "The suggestion that the Times news reporting was racist and racially motivated is categorically denied and will be vigorously challenged in court."
As publisher of the Tribe's Seminole Tribune newspaper, Chairman Billie is familiar with the First Amendment: "But I don't think 'freedom of the press' allows this sort of journalism. We let this go on for a long time. We waited and waited for them to stop. But they kept poking us. And hurting innocent people. We had to take this action."
The entire 18-page lawsuit can be viewed on the Seminole Tribe of Florida's official website: www.seminoletribe.com.