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St. Croix Chippewa officials pocketed or misspent at least $1.5 million in casino cash, regulators charge
At least $1.5 million in casino funds were pocketed by St. Croix Chippewa tribal leaders, or used for a variety of expenses including trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas with little or no documentation or receipts, federal regulators said this month.
"The dollar amounts are staggering," said Eric Dahlstrom, an Arizona attorney with about 40 years of experience in Indian legal issues. "I certainly haven't seen (a Notice of Violation) as large as this. ... Tribal gaming funds are strictly regulated and should be used to provide badly needed government service and build infrastructure."
Among the payments listed in the National Indian Gaming Commission's Notice of Violation were 74 totaling $154,173 that went to Lewis Taylor, longtime chairman of the tribe, from 2014 to 2017. Tribal Council member Elmer "Jay" Emery received 94 payments totaling $235,888 during the same period, the agency charged.
In addition, the regulators said that from 2015 to 2017, the St. Croix Casino Turtle Lake issued 275 payments totaling $562,246 to seven tribal members.
All told, the 29-page Notice of Violation lists 527 violations of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, NIGC regulations and tribal ordinances. The notice states that each violation could result in a fine of $52,596, meaning the total fine could exceed $27 million.
Regulators paint a picture of sloppy bookkeeping where casino cash was tossed around freely and without documentation.
"Many of the payments — worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — were issued to the same small group of people, often with the only supporting document being a request for disbursement form with the words 'travel' or 'consulting fees' scrawled into the comments section," the notice signed by NIGC Chairman Jonodev O. Chaudhuri states. "Upon further questioning by NIGC investigators, the tribe was unable to produce documentation to support treating the payments as expenses of the gaming operation."
The seriousness of the charges prompted the agency to bypass its normal procedure of issuing a concern letter before a notice of violation is fired off.
"In this case, however, given the pervasiveness and serious nature of the violations, coupled with the fact that many of the individuals identified in the Notice of Violation are still in a position to direct casino and net gaming revenues, the chair has decided to proceed directly" and issue the notice, the document states.
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Rory Dilweg, a California lawyer who has more than 20 years of experience in Indian legal issues, said the notice could spark other probes.
On top of that, he said "there could also be action taken by other agencies such as the FBI, the IRS, and Wisconsin Department of Revenue."
About 2,000 people live on the St. Croix reservations in Barron, Burnett, Polk and Washburn counties. The St. Croix Casino in Turtle Lake employs about 1,000 people and the tribe's Hole in the Wall Casino in Danbury employs about 200, according to the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council.
Calls to Lewis Taylor; Jeff Taylor, chairman of the tribe’s Gaming Commission; and officials in the tribal attorneys office were not returned Thursday. Aaron Harkins, a Minneapolis attorney who represents the tribe on some issues, said, "I can't comment on anything involving this client."
The tribe can appeal the findings in the notice to the full NIGC.
The notice leaves little hope that the tribe could undo the damage. "There is no way to correct these violations, but (Chairman Chaudhuri) will consider the tribe's efforts taken to mitigate damages when determining an appropriate civil fine," the notice states.
Other violations listed in the notice include:
- From 2015 to 2017, the Turtle Lake casino paid $301,287 in consulting fees to Lawrence Larsen "without any support (i.e. contract, invoice receipts) for goods or services provided by Larsen." Regulators provided no additional information about Larsen and noted that tribal officials could not produce a contract with Larsen or "provide a written description of the terms of any oral agreement" with him.
- In 2017, Larsen was paid $12,746 for travel. Larsen received payment twice for the same trips but provided receipts for only one trip. A February 2017 request of disbursement form shows three first-class trips for Larsen to fly from Honolulu to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Seattle and Seattle to Atlanta.
- Council member Emery used a casino credit card to purchase four first-class plane tickets to Hawaii in 2016 even though a tribal travel ban enacted in 2014 was still in effect. The ban was enacted in 2014 to deal with "the challenge of meeting its financial obligations in an economic climate which yields diminished revenue streams," according to a council resolution.
- In December 2016, the Turtle Lake casino cut $10,000 checks to Lewis Taylor and the four council members. The request for disbursement for the council members stated "Travel to Las Vegas Legal Symposium." Taylor's disbursement form said "Travel AZ Legal Symposium." The checks were cut before the trips and there is no supporting documentation or receipts available.
- Two council members — Stuart Bearheart and Carmen Bugg — each received $15,000 for a "project allocation," the regulators noted. The tribe was unable to provide regulators with a description of the project.
State and federal officials declined to say whether there were any criminal investigations as a result of the NIGC report.
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The new casino in Everett dominates the skyline. Not everyone’s a fan
Despite how it feels to Nancy Thomas, the Wynn Resorts casino that appears to have been airlifted straight from the Vegas Strip and dropped into a desolate patch of Everett is not literally “menacing” her.
Twenty-seven stories high, 11,000 tons of rebar strong, a muddy color onlookers can’t quite name — even if it is proprietary “Wynn bronze” — the casino looms when Thomas passes by on I-93. It dominates her view when she takes the Orange Line from Somerville, where she lives, to her real estate job in Boston.
“It’s like an evil person watching over me,” Thomas said in Assembly Row on a recent afternoon, her glass-and-steel tormentor over her shoulder, a fresh mani-pedi, an on-trend teddy bear coat, and a giant Louis Vuittan duffel giving zip to her look.
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Even as the state’s gambling commissioners are deciding whether Wynn Resorts can keep its $2.6 billion casino — in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct against Steve Wynn, which he denies — the casino itself is nearly finished, slated to open in June, and has become a dominant part of the Greater Boston skyline.
Viewpoints vary. But few people are without an opinion.
Ali Nix, a native Everett resident, is in the “monstrosity” camp.
“It’s an eyesore,” said Nix, a publicist who’s confronted by the building every time she drives Route 99 to work or the gym.
“You look at all of these developments in Boston and they’re all pretty blue glass,” she said. “I think the casino was attempting to go rose gold but it looks brown.”
The casino is in Everett. So why should non-Everett-tonians care so much about its appearance?
Because what happens in Everett doesn’t stay in Everett.
Innocent people passing by on the T or the roads can see it, as can those who work or live in the fancy new office or residential buildings in Assembly Row.
The Orange Line counts about 51,000 weekday journeys between Wellington and Assembly stations, where Encore Boston Harbor is most visible from the rail (some riders are likely counted twice, on the way to and from work).
Add those viewers to another nearly 300,000 motorists traveling on I-93/Zakim Bridge, Route 1/Tobin Bridge, and Route 99/Alford Street Bridge, according to the state Department of Transportation. (As with the Orange Line, some drivers are likely counted twice.)
‘It’s not exactly blocking trees or a beautiful waterfall. It’s freakin’ Everett.’
— Steve Sweeney, comedian, on the Encore Boston Harbor structure
But let’s not forget: The state did vote in favor of casinos — rejecting a repeal effort in 2014 — and not everyone considers “Vegas” a bad word.
(Indeed, Encore Boston Harbor expects 8 million visits a year, “from across the globe,” according to its website.)
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
The 27-story tall structure has become part of the Boston skyline.
On a recent weekday Regina Barros, of Dorchester, stepped off the T at Assembly, gloried in the nearby presence of the casino, and asked her daughter to take a picture, so lovely was the view.
“It looks like Vegas,” said Barros, who works concessions at TD Garden.
“Look at the other stuff around it — a power plant, a junkyard, an oil tank farm,” said Kristen Eck, WBZ NewsRadio 1030 helicopter reporter. “It’s probably the most attractive thing in the neighborhood.”
Wynn Resorts employees recognize the building as trademark Wynn bronze, but for those not in the firm’s employ, naming the color has become sport.
“It’s as orange as Donald Trump’s face,” said Sweeney, the star of the film “Sweeney Killing Sweeney.”
“It’s the same color as the lamp in my grandma’s apartment,” one passerby said. Others likened it to: “old union hall brown,” “ ’70s car brown,” and “taupe.”
Perhaps because the Everett casino’s very existence is under attack, Wynn Resorts was not as defensive about the tower’s appearance as one might have suspected.
Confronted with the insults, spokesman Michael Weaver said several things:
1) Wynn Resorts originally submitted a different design but the company was urged by state officials to redesign it to look like the iconic Vegas casino.
2) That design — the one locals are mocking now — is so iconic it’s included in the LEGO Las Vegas architecture set.
3) Encore Boston Harbor looks very pretty at night because “the signature white [horizontal] banding on the building benefits from up lighting at night,” he said.
4) Wynn bronze is actually very nice, in two specific ways: “It offers a beautiful reflection of its surroundings at night,” Weaver said. “And it creates a very warm, inviting glow inside the rooms.”
Well, whatever color the casino may be, and whether “Vegas” is a compliment or an insult, one thing is clear: It’s here and it’s us.
As Eck, up in her helicopter, put it: “Boston still is growing, so the skyline is changing. Maybe people won’t put it in the same elite category of the Citgo sign, but there will be a point when it does become associated with the city.”
We’ve been warned.Read more