Casino crowds dwindle

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Possible second closure may loom for Emerald Queen

By John Weymer

jweymer@tacomaweekly.com

As the Tacoma Weekly has been publishing a series of articles over the past several months concerning the state of the Puyallup tribe, and tribal leadership’s decision to open the new Emerald Queen Casino during the pandemic, some EQC staff and tribal members have been reaching out to us to express their concerns. For those who work for the tribe and casino, their biggest concern about going public is losing their jobs. They have questions, and we have questions, but getting any straight answers has proven to be practically impossible. Tribal members get doubletalk and the media gets no answers at all.

There was a time when the tribal council would be glad to have the Puyallup name in the paper – that is, when they were enjoying accolades from making extravagant charity donations with the membership’s money, or drumming up buzz for people to come and gamble their paychecks at the EQC. But when asked tougher, legitimate questions that put them on the spot and aren’t in keeping with the shiny public persona, the council and tribal leaders suddenly shy away.

This week, the Tacoma Weekly sent questions to two key figures among the tribe’s inner administrative team – tribal attorney Robert Hunter and chief financial officer Julie Hamilton. Some tribal members want to know a few things from both of them, so these members turned to the Weekly to see if we can help. 

WHO IS TRIBAL ATTORNEY ROBB HUNTER?

As an attorney for the tribe, Hunter advises the council on all sorts of important matters, including the casino. However, not all tribal members even know who he is, this man who is involved in making critical decisions that impact tribal members’ lives and well being. The Tacoma Weekly gave him the opportunity to tell tribal members about himself and the work he does. We asked questions like, “How long have you been with the Puyallup tribe?” and “Do you work at the administration building or out of state in Arizona permanently?” Hunter hasn’t been seen in the tribe’s Portland Avenue headquarters for months. 

When I first met and started working with Hunter, I figured him to be a good guy and that he had the tribe’s best interest at heart. But then doubt began to creep in when I learned of his tactics and how much money he makes compared to the other tribal attorneys, up to four times more. He is responsible for gaming decisions and reporting directly to council, in effect replacing both prior attorneys that handled those areas. 

When Hunter had issues with EQC manager Frank Wright, Hunter would call me in to talk about it. At one time, he asked me to see if Wright would take a buyout on his contract. When I asked how much and threw out the figure of $5 million, Hunter said possibly that amount. Wright and I were friends at the time and I talked to him about the controversy going on about him and that he might get a nice payout if he were willing to take it. Wright seemed disturbed by this and after that, my relationship with him totally deteriorated.

Thinking that Hunter was good guy who I could be honest with was a mistake on my part. In my final year with the tribe, council negotiated an offer to pay me for past bills that totaled more than $700,000. Council not wanting to pay this amount, Hunter and I negotiated down to $150,000 and signed a letter of agreement that they produced, but I have yet to see any payment, which falls on Hunter’s shoulders.

After I left the tribe, the Tacoma Weekly planned to write a non-threatening story about the tribe. When I called to ask some questions, they started making cash offers, but still no payment has made on the original agreement. 

To me, Hunter can’t be trusted and he doesn’t have the tribe’s best interest at heart. He’s respectful to council’s face, but behind their back he has no respect for them, Frank or the tribal membership.   

EQC: HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT

And what of Hunter’s counsel regarding opening the EQC in the midst of the pandemic? Has he advised tribal council of the legal ramifications of employees working in unsafe conditions that could lead to legal action? This is a real issue that the tribe should be concerned with. 

According to the Associated Press, unions representing 65,000 Las Vegas casino workers have accused some resort operators of putting employees at risk of illness and death during the coronavirus pandemic by disregarding safety measures like requiring mask-wearing. Earlier this week, these workers sued Las Vegas casinos after reports that many workers fell ill to COVID-19, stating in the lawsuit that the casinos in question did not require workers to wear face masks.

Workers at the EQC are reporting similar unsafe working conditions, and that certain employees have fallen ill yet continue to work there. Employees are afraid to say anything for fear of getting written up, and rumors among the co-workers are flying left and right, as they feel helpless to do anything about what is happening around them, and to them. Given his lack of concern and outright hostility toward his employees, EQC manager Frank Wright is the source of the problem. Not only is he putting people in danger; he is in direct violation of Washington state orders aimed at keeping us all safer.

On Tuesday, Gov. Inslee formally issued the extension of the Safe Start proclamation until Aug. 6. Under this proclamation, individuals are prohibited from entering a place of business without wearing a face covering. In addition, it requires employers to notify their local health jurisdictions within a 24-hour period if they suspect COVID-19 is spreading in their workplace, or if the employer is aware of two or more employees developing confirmed or suspected COVID-19 within a 14-day period.

If EQC employees and tribal casino workers across the state had their own labor union, things would be drastically different in terms of casino workers protecting themselves. Forming a union would give them leverage against management’s bullying, and protections from losing their jobs so that they, and EQC patrons, can stay out of the emergency room and not become COVID statistics. 

CASINOS OPEN, COVID ESCALATES

Forbes Magazine has revealed that two weeks after Nevada’s casinos reopened at limited capacity, Las Vegas reported its largest single-day increase in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. The same thing is happening in Pierce County. Over this past week, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has reported daily COVID-19 cases numbering in the 60s. This is two to three times more than the number of cases being reported daily in April, May and June. 

It’s just as bad across the state. On July 6, for the first time since the pandemic began Washington reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours, shattering the previous single-day record the week before. 

Questions to Hunter about what is in place for EQC employees to get tested, and how frequently, went unanswered, as did queries into what the consequences would be if the EQC had to close again. Would the tribe be able to survive financially were this to happen? 

This is what the Emerald Queen Casino is directing its patrons to do, taken from the casino’s own safety video. Source: Facebook

With customers dwindling down to practically nothing lately, closing the EQC may be a given. The initial rush to check out the new place has pretty much run its course – it’s practically empty during daytime hours. Reviews on Yelp have not been good:

  • Bridgett S., June 12, 2020: There was so many people you could not keep your distance. People there got up very close, it was uncomfortable, and I felt unsafe. They did nothing to limit the amount of people coming in. 
  • Ja H., June 26, 2020: I will not be going back to this casino while the pandemic is going on because they still allow smoking. I’ve been to two others. There is NO smoking in them until this is over.
  • Bob M., June 15, 2020:It’s so disappointing to hear Indians speak of a clean environment, but have made the decision to continue to allow smoking. Angel of the Winds at exit 210 is now completely smoke free. Silently protest by visiting the others: Muckleshoot, Red Wind or Angel of the Winds.  

More former customers posted equally negative reviews: “This casino is garbage,” Courtney S., July 5, 2020; “Worst place ever. Manager wasn’t any help. Don’t waste your time,” Courtney M., June 16, 2020; “I will never go back,” Lu L., June 26, 2020. 

CLOSING UP AGAIN

On Wednesday, officials with Public Health – Seattle & King County shut down Duke’s Seafood on Alki due to COVID-19 among employees, accusing the restaurant of violating the state’s “Safe Start Plan.” Seven workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Back in Vegas, the Venetian resort and Caesars Palace are looking at closing up again, according to Vital Vegas, a popular online media site. “We hear some Las Vegas casinos could close temporarily due to COVID-19 concerns,” Vital Vegas reports.“A reliable source believes Venetian has plans to close, yet again, following the July 4 weekend. …We’ve also heard frontline staffers at Caesars Palace have relayed to guests the resort will temporarily close following the long weekend.

Questions to Hamilton concerned the tribe’s shaky finances and whether payments toward huge bank loans are going to the principal or to interest only. Now that tribal member per-caps are based on the performance of the EQC and other tribal enterprises, we asked her whether the membership will be able to review honest documentation of profits and losses directly affecting their income stream. No response. 

Hamilton’s qualifications to handle the tribe’s money are questionable given her personal financial history that includes rumors of her losing her home and filing for bankruptcy. For the tribe, she has miscalculated taxes owed by the City of Fife, in Fife’s favor, which brings into question how much non-tribal revenue she is not collecting from local governments. She did not respond to questions concerning these matters, either. She wouldn’t provide a breakdown of what casino profits go to, how much of a rainy day fund she has set aside for the tribe, or how much she collects in gas and cannabis taxes to offset her tribal budget.

When behind closed doors, both Hunter and Hamilton gripe about the council, and even more so about EQC manager Wright’s ability to do his job, but it stops there. Neither of them inform tribal council of their serious concerns. Thus, casino analysis, market studies and reports on Wright have all gone ignored by the council, giving Wright free rein to control the casino as he wishes – the very source of tribal members’ income and method to help finance tribal programs and services. 

The Tacoma Weekly will continue this series on the tribe regarding concerts, boxing and other issues raised by tribal members and EQC staff. 

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