St. Croix Chippewa Indians May Face Federal Inquiry after Allegations Involving $1.5M of Casino Funds
Posted on: April 21, 2019, 01:00h.
Last updated on: April 19, 2019, 08:48h.
St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin risk paying up to $27 million in fines after audits claim more than $1.5 million of tribal casino money was improperly spent, misaccounted for, or apparently used for personal expenses.
The National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) dated on April 11 which says the tribe committed 527 infringements of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and other laws. Each of the instances — which basically took place between 2014 and 2017 — could result in a fine of up to $52,596.
Also, further investigation could take place by federal law enforcement or tax authorities, Rory Dilweg, an attorney at Colorado-based Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti, told Casino.org.
The NIGC — a national tribal gaming regulator — warned the allegations are “serious” and noted their “pervasiveness.” Sometimes, the tribe showed a “complete disregard” for the rules found in the IGRA.
On several occasions, tribal leaders used a casino credit card to pay for improper first-class flights to Hawaii or Las Vegas, the NIGC said. Additionally, the tribe made “substantial payments” to consultants and businesses “without a contract, record, or even a later recollection of the goods or services provided in exchange,” the notice said.
This is the longest — 29 pages — NOV, with the most alleged violations — 527 — I have ever seen,” Dilweg said. He is a former chief counsel for the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.
The NOV claims $154,173 — divided by 74 expenses — was paid to Lewis Taylor, tribal chairman, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which initially reported the story. Elmer “Jay” Emery, tribal council member, was given $235,888 from 94 different payments. The NOV also questioned 275 payments totaling $562,246 made to several tribal members.
Before calculating the fine, the NIGC said it will look how the St. Croix Chippewa will “mitigate damages.”
There is a 30-day appeal period and the tribe will likely seek legal representation in pleading its case.
Tribal officials did not respond immediately when asked for comment.
They operate casinos in Turtle Lake, Hertel and Danbury.
Atypical Monitoring of Funds
The irregular methods allegedly used by the St. Croix Chippewa are very much an exception when compared to other tribes, Dilweg said.
“Tribal casinos are, overall, incredibly well regulated and have provided revenue and jobs to many Indian tribes throughout the United States,” he said.
Gary S. Pitchlynn, a Norman, Oklahoma-based attorney who specializes in tribal gaming law and teaches the subject at University of Oklahoma College of Law, agreed.
He told Casino.org that if the allegations are true, it is “unusual.” Tribal regulators and elected officials “generally do a credible job of ensuring that gaming operations are following a strict internal regulatory protocol which will track the funds all the way to the bank,” he said.
Typically, allegations of wrongdoing at tribal gaming venues are more limited in scope. For example, in 2017 Pennsylvania’s Mohegan Sun Pocono was hit with a $70,000 fine for five separate incidents of underage gambling. Or, in February, an ex-assistant manager showed up in court to face a charge for allegedly embezzling over $100,000 from a restaurant in Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun casino.
Avoiding Future Impropriety
Pitchlynn said the allegations illustrate the need for the Wisconsin tribe to set up “an independent regulatory body that does not owe allegiance to elected officials, but to the tribe as a whole.
“This is what often happens when there is not a separation between the political body of a tribe and the operation and regulatory activities of the gaming enterprises.”
Attorney Dilweg said the allegations — if true — were preventable. There needs to be “strict rules” on how casino revenues “can be spent and who can authorize expenditures,” he said.
With “proper documentation” of expenditures, revenues can be “properly audited,” Dilweg added.
Allowable expenses include: tribal government operations and programs; general welfare of the tribe and its members; economic development; charities; and local government agencies. They are designed to protect tribal members.
When one steals from their tribe they are stealing from each and every tribal member, but more particularly from those most in need of tribally-funded programs like the elderly and the children,” Pitchlynn said.
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