Exclusive Article September, 1997

Newspaper Invades Seminole Country

By Peter B. Gallagher

The St. Petersburg Times has resorted to questionable tactics - unethical and illegal, say journalism and legal experts - to pursue a broad "tabloid style" secret investigation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida's people and government, the Seminole Tribune has learned.

In its quest, the St. Petersburg Times has pried into the most intimate sectors of an entire American Indian culture, searching from bedrooms to boardrooms and harassing Tribal members and employees in a manner not seen in this part of Indian Country since the U.S. calvary rode horses and swatted the Indians to walk faster on the Trail of Tears.

Times reporters Brad Goldstein and Jeff Testerman have invaded the privacy of innocent persons, says Seminole Chairman James Billie, and gone beyond the public information sphere to acquire confidential Tribal documents and information. This may include the secret Seminole Tribal (clan/blood quantum) membership roll, Council and Board of Directors budgetary information, data processing, vendor and personnel files.

No expose has been published. But the Seminole Tribe has already been damaged, says the Chairman, who has asked Tribal attorneys to consider legal action against the reporters and the newspaper, itself.

"We have nothing to hide," says Billie. "But we are like any other private business. You don't give out certain information and then lose your advantage in business dealings. I'm sure the St. Petersburg Times' competitors would love to see their financial records, their vendors, their private files, their future plans

"We have attorneys to tell us when something is illegal. If they tell me something is illegal, then we stop. My attorneys tell me we are operating perfectly legal."

Reward Offered

The Chairman announced a $5,000 reward for information on persons who have violated Tribal policies and state/federal laws concerning confidential documents and electronic information theft.

Goldstein, whose title is Computer Assisted Reporting Editor, and Testerman, a Tampa bureau reporter, have spent more than nine months "hacking" behind computer screens. There is evidence they may have even acquired codes and passwords and gained entry into the Tribal computer system.

The reporters have ignored offers to speak with Chairman Billie or General Counsel Jim Shore: Billie left his personal phone numbers on Goldstein's answer machine and Testerman was offered a ride to visit and speak to Billie at his Big Cypress house, to no avail. The reporters are not yet ready to speak with Tribal officials.

"I don't think they have a real focus," says a source within the Times. "It's just that here is this large corporation that is an Indian tribe and the newspaper has never really looked into their operations . . ." So, the editors decided to go on a "fishing expedition."

It is known the Times project began with an investigation into Tribal housing, then turned into a misguided search for Tribal misdeeds in Peru, then turned into an exploration of the nether world associated with Tribal gaming, then turned into an examination of the Tribal financial portfolio, including investments, loans and dividends, then to an "attack" on Tribal leadership. It has stirred inter-Tribal controversy, even fueling bigotry and hate, says Chairman Billie.

"The leadership of this Tribe is chosen by a Democratic election," Billie says. "There are a lot of people who did vote for me and a lot of people who didn't vote for me. And some of them are disgruntled. But to go from person to person trying to find enemies, then to copy down and spread their rhetoric is disturbing. I don't care if they never print a story - they have already stirred up hate and trouble."

The pair have filed numerous Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests on Tribal officials and business associates, contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). A time-consuming investigation they instigated regarding Seminole Tribal member Joel Frank's travel expenses while he was a member of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) did result in one glaring oversight: The NIGC owed Frank $300 for a reimbursement!

"If there is something wrong, the BIA can come down here with all its power. I would expect the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Justice Department to use all their resources to investigate us," says the Chairman. "Even (Florida Attorney General) Bob Butterworth could come down here. He knows what's going on. I've always been up front with him."

The Times has acquired unlisted phone numbers, addresses, criminal records and personal family histories considered private by the Seminole Tribe and protected by law. They have interviewed disgruntled former employees and others expected to shed negative light on the Tribe, including political opponents of Chairman James Billie, Tribal business associates and known crooks and con men. Dozens of loyal Tribal members and employees have been contacted and asked to violate the law by "helping" the Times in its investigation of the Tribe:

"Anonymity is Critical"

"I understand the position this letter puts you in, but I've only the interest of the tribe at heart," wrote Goldstein in a June 30 letter mailed to Chairman's Executive Assistant Pat Diamond's home address. "I'm aware that you may be in possession of certain documents that could help our pursuit of the truth: namely how rank and file tribal members are being hurt by irresponsible leadership.

"You don't need to contact me by telephone. But if copies of those documents were to arrive in an envelope that has no return address on it, the truth will get out and there will be no trace," the letter continued. "Anonymity is crucial. Your name will never come up. Anonymous notes, written on a home typewriter would be best."

Similar letters were mailed to others, including Hollywood Clinic Director Dr. Tim Lozon. Lozon's letter came to his home address, which he considers unlisted. In the letter, Goldstein made an allegation of federal misdeeds involving then-Tribal Executive Administrator Larry Frank. Lozon brought the letter to Frank. The reporter kept calling Lozon's house. Finally, the doctor responded, demanding to know how Goldstein got his address. Goldstein was evasive at first, said Lozon, "then he admitted he had got it through a drivers license check. What right does he have to do that? Why was he investigating me?"

According to Lozon, Goldstein "asked me if I knew (former Tribal Health Director) Charles Delane. Goldstein told me 'That guy's sure got an axe to grind, doesn't he?'"

Lozon said Goldstein also questioned him about the Tribal loan policies of Brighton's Director of Community Action Ellen Click Smith, about James Billie's friends receiving free dental treatments and asked Lozon to "slip" him the classified Health Department budget. Cooperation would have cost Lozon his job and possibly his license to practice and the doctor knows it: "He said it wouldn't be unheard of for things to show up on his desk in a plain brown wrapper. He even offered to send me filled-out Federal Express envelopes. I said no thanks."

Ms. Diamond said the letter on St. Petersburg Times stationery "disturbed me. I didn't even want to carry it in my purse. I called Jim (Shore) right away." Several days later, Goldstein called Ms. Diamond at home. He offered small talk about her hometown in West Virginia. "That bothered me. I wondered how he found that out," she says. Fearing she would hang up, Goldstein pleaded with Ms. Diamond to hear him out, she says: "I just listened. I didn't say a word. I got the feeling he wanted me to affirm things he was saying, so I didn't even grunt. When he was done I said 'Good-by' and hung up."

A Fishing Expedition

Ms. Diamond's notes of the July 21 one-way conversation indicate that Goldstein claimed to have spoken with Ellen Smith. (Untrue - Ms. Smith sent reporters away when they visited her, unnanounced, at her Brighton office.) According to Ms. Diamond, the reporter said a story would "come out no matter what" and that the Times' piece would be "a solid piece of work." He described Seminole Tribal members as "not well-schooled but hard working people." He told how the Times investigation would "clean up the leadership" of the Tribe. He asked for her help in pilfering documents. The reporter even mentioned an intimate and embarassing story involving Ms. Diamond.

Many of those contacted by Goldstein say the reporter asks about a man named Robb Tiller. According to one Tribal source who asked not to be named, when Goldstein mentioned Tiller, "I thought to myself, this whole thing must be a Tiller production. I figured that he was sitting down there in St. Petersburg telling them stories all day. And they were out fishing."

Especially disturbing was the bizarre last paragraph in Goldstein's letter to Ms. Diamond: "The truth is crucial. No one else is willing to ensure that tribal members get what is owed to them. The FBI isn't. No one but the press. I hope you look into your heart and do the right thing. Innocent people are being hurt. And if something isn't done, then the problem could swallow up everyone."

"I definitely believe the letter is a breech of journalism ethics. Any good investigative reporter is supposed to have an objective mind. It is clear from this letter that this reporter has his mind made up. This is clear evidence of pre-judgement. It's a real fishing expedition," says author Dr. Maury Breecher, Ph.D., a nationally known expert on journalism ethics. "This is unexcusable.

"There are guidelines that have been issued by the Society of Professional Journalists. The first guideline is that, all else being equal, provide full identity of your news sources. This means the last thing you do is offer confidentiality. In fact, one of the guidelines says, 'before promising confidentiality, try to obtain the same information from sources willing to be quoted.'

"The press has great power. It must always use that power with great discretion."

Actionable Offenses

Attorney Don Ovlovsky raised a different issue. "The employee has a fiduciary relationship with the employer. The employee has a responsibility to the employer that this reporter is trying to subvert," says Orlovsky, who has complained to the St. Petersburg Times about the tactics of reporter Goldstein. "It's like saying, 'Go into your employer's drawer. If you find any linen, dirty or otherwise, send it to me.'"

Beyond ethics, says Orlovsky, the Times and Goldstein may have acted unlawfully. Among the "actionable" offenses is "tortious interference," says the attorney: "The Tribe could possibly sue him and the newspaper. We're researching it now."

Federal agencies began contacting Tribal leadership as soon as the FOIs were filed. Many who had been contacted surreptitiously became nervous and paranoid. Most came forward. Tribal member Gloria Wilson, who had opposed Chairman Billie in one general election, refused to talk to Goldstein, distressed that she had been called on a phone she had kept unlisted for 11 years. An attempt to infiltrate the Secretary-Treasurer's office was stopped dead by Wanda Bowers: "I told them to talk to the Chairman." The reporters even requested itineraries of Tribal members competing at the recent Indigenous Games in Vancouver.

The reporters were persistent; some victims have reported up to six and seven calls to persons who obviously did not want to talk. "They kept calling and calling. I was really worried. I wondered why I was being contacted," says one Tribal employee. "How did I get on their list of malcontents? What if someone got their list of names and gave it to the Chairman?"

Times reporters' questions concerning finances and benefits of "white" or non-Tribal members has helped foment an undercurrent of bigotry, says Billie, who keeps asking, "What business is this of theirs?"

"They go on and on about how the white people are really benefitting from the Tribe's money, with all kinds of statistics they claim are true," says one Tribal member. "It makes people mad. You figure: these are reporters. People think they must know what they are saying."

Tabloid Journalism

The technique is common when used by detectives "shaking down" a suspect in a criminal case, but rare in investigative journalism. If what we are saying is wrong, then prove it to us is a constant strain throughout the reporters' conversation, report victims. Bring us the documents. Bring us the proof. We want to publish the truth. Make it appear on our desks in a brown envelope. No one will ever know.

"This is the type of tactic you'd expect from a tabloid newspaper. Not a paper with a reputation like the St. Petersburg Times," says Dr. Breecher. "One has to sit back and question their motives."

Some Tribal members and employees have fallen into the trap set by Times investigators. "When you start going into private company records, especially electronically, you stand a good chance of committing a crime," warns attorney Orlovsky. "There is a lot of law on the books about that subject."

Finally, at the July 21 Tribal Council meeting, Tribal Information Systems employee Jo-Linn Osceola stood to inform a packed auditorium that she had been contacted by Times reporter Testerman seeking "information regarding Tribal misuse of funds," she says. "Basically I have been used. They were trying to set me up as a scapegoat," says Ms. Osceola. "I could tell by my conversation with Testerman that he was looking for something negative."

Why was Jo-Linn Osceola contacted? The main source for the Times investigation - Tiller - had recommended her. "(Tiller) said her father (former Tribal president Joe Dan Osceola) had conflicts with James Billie and she might be inclined to provide negative information," says the source within the Times.

"Also, she supposedly works with the Tribal computer system. She could be helpful in gaining access to Tribal files and records."

The Main Source

Ms. Osceola said she and Tiller lived together during a seven month period in 1995. It was during that time when Tiller filed his first legal action (using her home address on the Hollywood reservation) concerning his alleged dealings as a "consultant" to Seminole gaming enterprises. That lawsuit, and others involving Tiller are known to provide the centerpiece of the Times investigation of the Tribe. After their breakup, Ms. Osceola says there was very little contact between her and Tiller until "he called me out of the blue."

In the phone call, Tiller asked Ms. Osceola to speak to the Times reporters "and tell them some positive things about the Tribe," she says. "He was saying, 'Jo-Linn, the Tribe is really in trouble. These reporters have a lot of damaging information. The FBI interrogated me for hours and hours. You've got to help the Tribe!'"

Tiller did not tell Ms. Osceola, however, that he was the "main source" for all the damaging information - both from the flamboyant lawsuit he had filed and from interviews with reporters Testerman and Goldstein. Tiller also did not tell her that he had talked the phone company into putting his name back on Ms. Osceola's "caller ID."

When Testerman finally called, "I was very nervous. I went to Sal (Giannettino, her supervisor) and he told me to go to James," she said.

"I tried to tell him about the Tribal education programs but (Testerman) didn't want to hear that. He said, 'Are you saying all this money is going to education? Do you really believe that?' I could tell he wasn't interested in hearing anything positive."

She was never contacted again by either Tiller or theTimes.

"I can't imagine calling someone up at the St. Petersburg Times and asking them to steal documents for me about the company finances or the personal lives of Brad Goldstein and Jeff Testerman," says Billie.

A Trip to Peru

Goldstein and Testerman continued searching. They contacted ex-girlfriends, dismissed employees, the estranged wife of James Billie, the ex-wife of Jim Shore. Tiller's rambling, expletive-filled interviews with the Times provided the fuel. His discourse of truths, half-truths, obfuscations, twisted scenarios and downright lies expanded the Times investigation to every sector of the Tribe, including paternity. "The guy talks loud, he brags and he uses sexual innuendos for everything,"adds a Times source, who says Tiller's criminal and credit records are known. "It was embarrassing to listen to him. "Everyone knows he's a con man. He's lived in 20 different places in the last few years, including on a boat. Spend more than two minutes talking to him and it's undeniable.

"But, there's no denying he had an 'in' with the Seminole Tribe. He knows what's going on. Well, maybe not everything. He's gonna get burned, too, when this story gets published!"

According to the source, Tiller seemed intent on "ruining" Pan American's Jim Clare, whose gaming contract with the Tribe had been coveted by Tiller and his associates. Goldstein followed one Tiller tip to Peru to snoop around a business enterprise Clare owns there. The 35-year-old reporter returned with no story. Other Times employees bristled at the situation: "That set a few people grumbling around the office," a source said. "The Times has a correspondent in South America that could have handled that work, but they sent Goldstein. He spent a lot of money to come back with nothing."

Those familiar with the St. Petersburg Times say the newspaper does not take international trips and spend that kind of money to simply settle for a "dry hole." The Times also knows the pitfalls of over-ambitious reporting: still fresh is the embarrassment of winning a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for the "investigation" of a local sheriff who was later exonerated by the court system.

"A Misuse of Funds"

It is the specter of the Seminoles' potential to operate casino gambling - a departure from Times editorial policy - that has kept the investigation plodding ahead, say sources.

Meanwhile, several weeks ago, Tiller made another call "out of the blue." Out in the Big Cypress Swamp, James Billie put a cellular phone to his ear.

"Tiller wanted to meet with me. He wanted to let me know what the St. Petersburg Times was doing. He wanted to give me the inside information he had developed, so we could attack the newspaper and protect the Tribe," said Chairman Billie. "I said, 'If you're involved, Robb, then I'm sure the whole thing is a pack of lies.' I told him I wasn't interested and not to call me again."

Billie - a newspaper publisher himself since 1979 - finds it ironic to be at odds with the media.

"You know, if they want to talk about misuse of funds, then maybe they should write how I wasted all that money on the James Richardson case, or how we overspent investigating Rosewood," Billie says. He refers to Seminole Tribune investigations that helped free Richardson -wrongfully accused of murdering his seven children - and first alerted authorities and legislators to the magnitude of the tragic Rosewood racial "massacre." Part II to come soon.