Appeals court opens leader of Miccosukee Tribe to IRS summons

Miccosukee Tribe Chairman Colley Billie speaks at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. June 1, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

The leader of the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida cannot claim sovereign immunity to avoid a summons from the Internal Revenue Service, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday.

In 2013, the IRS asked Chairman Colley Billie to provide information about tribal members in order to determine whether they reported per capita payments to the federal government. He refused, calling the matter one of internal governance and arguing that he lacked authority to release any records without approval of the entire general membership.

Judge Cecilia Altonaga subsequently ordered Billie to comply with the summons but he took the case to the 11th Circuit. In an unpublished decision, the court said the tribe's sovereignty cannot overcome that of the United States.

"Whether tethered specifically to the blocking resolution or asserted more generally as a type of immunity inherent in tribal sovereignty, the question on appeal asks simply whose laws are superior and therefore controlling: those of the United States or those of the tribe," the court wrote in a per curiam decision.

"Because the federal tax laws at issue expressly apply to Indian tribes, because Congress retains plenary authority over the tribe, and because the United States is the superior sovereign, the district court correctly ordered enforcement of the administrative summons," the decision continued.

During the appeal, Billie's attorneys argued that H.R.3043, the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act, which became law in September 2014, required the IRS to stop its enforcement action. A provision requires the agency to suspend administrative proceedings while the Department of Treasury develops training for agents who work in Indian Country.

The 11th Circuit, however, said the issue was not properly before the court. "The absence of evidence necessary to support an analysis of how this new law applies to the present case," the decision stated.

The case will now return to Judge Altonaga, who had held off on holding Billie in contempt while he pursued the appeal. It's possible the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act might be able to help him in further proceedings.

The dispute stems from the tribe's distribution of gaming revenues on a per capita basis. The IRS believes tribal members have failed to report more than $300 million over five years.

There is evidence that the payments have been used to cover general welfare costs. In a high-profile wrongful death case, the tribe took $3.1 million from the accounts of two members to pay for their defense team.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, US v. Billie.

11th Circuit Decision:
US v. Billie (June 1, 2015)

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