Tribal members organize grassroots movement to bring transparency to their government
By John Weymer
Over the course of the Tacoma Weekly’s coverage of the Puyallup tribe’s recent struggles, we have gotten some great feedback from many tribal members. Others, however, like Danyelle Marie-Hill Satiacum, are angry over it. She has gone so far as to post my home address online in a not-too-veiled attempt to threaten and intimidate me. This perfectly illustrates the brand of mob mentality that has infected the tribe for decades, and what I and the Tacoma Weekly had to deal with for the nearly 20 years working with the tribe.
The Tacoma Weekly has no intention of curbing our reports on the tribe, as we work to help the membership get their stories out with concerns about their leadership.
Per-cap income continues to be a top concern among the membership. Having depended for so many years on that consistent benefit, which is now in jeopardy, all eyes are on the tribal council and what they’re going to do to maintain per-caps and the many services provided to the membership.
This week, the tribal council issued a letter explaining the situation, but it just raises more questions. The letter includes an example of how the performance-based per-capitas will be calculated, but by using made up revenue numbers and applying them to a tribal population of 1,000. The Puyallup tribe’s population is at more than 6,000. It’s puzzling as to why the tribal council and tribal accountants would contrive a scenario to show the membership what their financial outlook will be, other than that council really doesn’t have a plan.
Two days before the Puyallup tribe opened its new casino on Monday, June 8, the primary election for tribal council was held after being postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Out of the 15 candidates that ran, four emerged to move on to the general election.
Two council seats are up for re-election, belonging currently to Jim Rideout, who received 309 votes, and Tim Reynon, who received 244 votes. Challenger Monica Miller emerged from the primary with 270 votes, and James Miles with 171 votes. These four will now be in the general election on Aug. 1.
Reynon was first elected to the council in 2014 then re-elected in 2017. As the most schooled member of the council, before being elected he held various positions in the tribe including tribal attorney. In 2013, he co-founded a tribal consulting firm, Native American Community and Child Welfare Advocates, LLC, with his only client being the Puyallup tribe. When he quit working at the tribe to do this, council approved a $300,000-plus severance package for him – in reality, a buy-off so that he wouldn’t run for council.
Rideout, known in the tribe as a seasoned fisherman and diver, comes from a history of family involvement in tribal departments and politics. He was first elected to council in 2017 and is facing his first time at re-election. While serving on tribal council, last year he got into a confrontation with a tribal police officer at Firecracker Alley that allegedly got physical. Some were calling for Rideout to be charged, but that never happened.
Miller, sister of long time council member Sylvia Miller, has run for council before but never gained enough votes to advance. As we all know, Monica and EQC manager Frank Wright have had a longtime relationship, a much closer one in years past. While she was Wright’s girlfriend, Miller won the first big payout from Rocket Bingo that the casino ever made – more than $100,000. We can all remember Miller yelling Wright’s name across the casino when she ran out of money and needed more to play the slots.
Miller makes an interesting choice to receive so many votes at this time, as she is director of the tribe’s Per Capita/Representative Payee Department. Given that the tribal council recently made the historic announcement that the membership’s per-cap payments will now be based on profits from the casino and other tribal businesses rather than receiving the regular $2,000 a month, members are very worried about their financial future. With her influence in the per-cap department, Miller’s win in the primary could be a reflection of the membership’s move to somehow bring change to the council.
For Miles, he is a former tribal council member who served one term, 2007-2010. He ran again in 2011 and 2012, but this time made it through the primary. Like Miller, his win in the primary also makes for an interesting choice to be elected. Miles is not afraid to go head to head with Wright on casino matters. In his past term, Miles brought in outside agencies to provide independent efficiency and marketing studies for the casino. Those reports were tabled by the rest of the council.
Chairman David Bean may be caught up in a council shake-up as well. Interest in a recall is spreading among the membership, with tribal members organizing meetings and online chats to put a recall effort in motion. Ironically, when Bean first ran for a council seat, he championed transparency on the council, which led to his being elected. Now, those promises are coming back to haunt him, as he is having to explain to the membership where all the tribe’s money went and what the plan is to recover. So far, no clear answers have been given other than to tell the membership that their per-capita income is going to tank.
SPENDING BEYOND ONE’S MEANS
For Indian tribes to struggle with maintaining per-capita payments is nothing new and seems to be inherent in the program. As tribal families grow, this adds more people to receive payments, so tribal revenues must keep pace with this ever-rising demand. For the Puyallups, their per-capita program was a political move by council member Bill Sterud, with no thought or process to how it was all going to work, which is why the tribe is in trouble today.
A good example of how tribes can get into financial quicksand can be seen in the fate of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe in eastern Connecticut. In the late 1990s, the tribe made it into the pages of the New York Times upon the opening of its lavish Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Bigger than the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., the tribe was in fine shape when their $225 million museum opened in 1998. Their casino was performing well and the modest membership was reportedly receiving about $100,000 annually.
Then the tribe’s casino, the biggest in the Western hemisphere, began to slip on its financial footing, as competition moved in and mismanagement plagued the tribe’s moneymaker. This failing casino revenue, coupled with overexpansion in projects beyond the tribe’s means to pay, misjudging the market, borrowing too much money and paying tribal employees, including tribal council members, exorbitant salaries, sank the tribe into nearly $2 billion of debt. The per-caps ceased, jobs were lost and some tribal members had to move from their reservation in search of work. Others live on food stamps and welfare checks.
For the Puyallup tribal council to make any changes to the membership’s per-caps, the council’s Revenue Allocation Plan (RAP) must first be reviewed and approved by the Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior. This applies to all distribution of net gaming revenue. The council has been in violation of this federal requirement in the past, which indicates that this is something the tribal membership should look into concerning recent changes to their per-caps. Also under the RAP, tribes are not allowed to exceed 55 percent of gaming revenue to pay per-caps. Is the Puyallup tribal council exceeding this amount as well?
Another question that bears asking is whether the council followed the RAP rules when it voted to take $1,000 out of tribal children’s trust accounts and give it to the parents to, in theory, pay for costs in raising their children. This is not what the children’s trust accounts are intended for. Foster parents can do the same thing by simply filling out an application to receive a portion of their foster child’s money, again with no guarantees that the adults won’t spend the money as they see fit rather than on the children’s needs.
A way that the tribal membership could get some control over their lives, rather than trust in the tribal council, would be to enlist the help of an independent third party examiner knowledgeable in casino operations. Such an efficiency expert could look at the casino business and find ways to trim the fat, starting with casino manager Frank Wright and his bloated salary. The salary amounts for all tribal employees, the council included, could be capped and a salary classification system installed to provide some stability in this area. Then other wasteful spending could be looked at, like getting rid of Marine View Ventures, which makes no money for the tribe, the cancer clinic, the unused riverboat, and more. The more money expended on needless things means less money going to the tribal members, so it is in their best interest to get to the bottom of how their money is being spent.
FISHING FOR INFORMATION
That the tribal membership even has to seek out information points to another big problem – closed tribal council meetings. Why is it that every other governing body in every jurisdiction has meetings open to the public, but the Puyallup tribal council meets behind closed doors? Meetings should be held at Chief Leschi where everything is transparent and out in the open. Reviewing tribal council minutes is a waste of time, too, as they are heavily edited and without being present at meetings to put everything into context, they are confusing and reveal little real information.
The same goes for the casino, with the membership being shut out.
Neither the council nor the membership get reports from casino management outlining the finances, and with no real player tracking, there is no proof that such reports would even be true. The council has no idea of what’s going on with the casino and neither does the membership and it’s the membership that owns the casino. Each individual tribal member is a shareholder. The casino is their investment and they have every right to know on a monthly basis where the money is going and who is getting paid what by being provided with detailed financial reports. However, again it goes back to the lack of player tracking, which prevents any real calculation of casino performance, a benefit to manager Frank Wright in that he can paint any picture and the council believes him.
For example, EQC management is saying that since re-opening, the Fife casino has been having record business, but how could that be if the casino is running at one-third capacity? Word is that there are more people being let in to the casino than there are slot machines to play, which reveals that social distancing and other preventive health measures can’t be enforced.
In effect, the tribal council opened the doors to more than the casino – they opened the doors to another wave of COVID-19, putting EQC employees and customers alike at high risk. People from counties far and wide go to the casino then they go home and would bring the virus with them to their families and community. If the governor has to enforce another lockdown, it would impact the entire state economy and put to waste all the sacrifices and efforts that everyone has made over these past several months, not to mention the increase in infections and deaths. But the tribe needs money, and without any back-up funds or ideas on how to bring money in from different sources, the council moved to open the casino and thus endanger everyone in the state.
According to health experts, the pandemic is far from over. On June 8, The Washington Post reported that parts of the country that had previously avoided being hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak are now tallying record-high new infections. According to the story, since the start of June, 14 states and Puerto Rico have recorded their highest-ever seven-day average of new coronavirus cases since the pandemic began: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
Even though tribal enterprises are outside of the state’s jurisdiction, state and local health departments should step up and assert some leadership in response to tribes opening their casinos. With no sports games, theaters or concerts to go to, the casinos offer just about the only form of entertainment available right now so being open to the public is a big deal. This is something that one would think would be of concern to health authorities, and if the casinos are in fact operating under all the precautions and protections they say they are, tribal councils should welcome all health inspections.
City and county leaders should also be concerned with casino re-openings. Tacoma city council should be on call about another possible outbreak of the pandemic and should be asking for additional impact fees from the tribe to cover the costs of increased services now that the tribe has two casinos up and running at a time when municipalities everywhere are experiencing financial struggles.
Opening night at the tribe’s flagship casino of the future was less than spectacular. Filled with the usual dredge coming off the street, EQC’s questionable gaming issues persist. It could have been your lucky night at the Emerald Queen because of the unusual number jackpot winners on a particular progressive slot machine. Casino manager George Robinson described it as a “glitch” in the system. But out of the progressive game set with only two winners in place, there were 265 jackpot winners paid out that night. Casino surveillance noticed that the people winning the jackpots were doing a particular sequence on the machine and before the machine quit, hit “payout” and collected the jackpots.
This could be the result of a backdoor that would allow friends of the software developer to take advantage of these machines. These things are not unheard of, and are actually advertised all over the web on how to cheat slot machines. Again, the membership is on the hook for 265 jackpots when it should have only been only two. That seems to be more than a gaming “glitch.”
The Washington State Gambling Commission has a lab that approves such software. The machine that was paying out was using old software from 2017, so you have to scratch your head over why it was on the gaming floor in the first place, but you can scratch your head a lot more because management has yet to pull the game. The existing EQC management seems to be ambivalent to such losses, but the membership should remember in the future that losses come out of their pockets, not the casinos, resulting in smaller per-cap checks. The membership owns the casino and has every right to the information. The council should provide as much open data to the membership as possible without jeopardizing the integrity of the organization. Who can argue with openness? If everything is on the up and up, you’re not afraid to show your hand.
It only takes one, but obvious, chat on the internet, and there are many, all asking about basically the same thing: transparency and open government. A handful of tribal members can make a difference. Now that tribal members are getting together and organizing an effort to confront their council, there are some sources that they need to reach out to: Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Tribal members also have the power to challenge their tribal council in court. But all of these methods take expertise. There are ways to to take on the power of the council without a lot of investment from individual tribal members. As recall movements and other actions take place in holding the council accountable, such things as signature petitions can be done in many ways, including electronically. Even 50 signatures to the feds means something. One is enough, but 50 means a lot more. If there are groups of individuals that are concerned but not getting answers from the council, there are other places to reach out to, such as private attorneys. My recommendation is attorney Gabriel Galanda in Seattle (www.galandabroadman.com). Tribal members should reach out to him for at least a free consultation. Galanda has a reputation for taking on such battles with tribes and governments. His advice might be to go to the feds, but the membership has lots of resources, including local elected officials in Olympia, the county and the city. Tribal members who are Tacoma residents are represented by four governments in this state and these members have rights with all of them.
The solutions aren’t as complicated as tribal members may be led to believe. Other tribal council leaders have already reached out to individual tribal members online, offering their help. Puyallup tribal members should not be embarrassed to talk to other tribes to, for example, find out how the Muckleshoots and Tulalips run their governments.
Our country is now at the dawn of monumental change. People of all races are joining together to fight injustice in government, not just corrupt police departments. It goes much further than Black Lives Matter and police brutality – it means a change in how our federal government works. We’ve become victims of the people we elect and our only solution is to vote them out. Recalls and other methods are timely and costly. Tribal members have the opportunity to change two council members every year. Maybe voting with your heart, rather than your pocket book, will bring you the kind of leadership you need for the future.