By John Weymer
March 24 of this year marked the 30th anniversary of the Puyallup tribe’s Land Claims Settlement. With the signing of this historic document, the tribe embarked on a mission to get the membership firmly on its feet and the tribe reinforced as a full fledged sovereign nation and government. Getting their gaming operations established was key as the tribe’s money-maker to do all the things that the tribe dreamed of doing for their youth, elders and every tribal member in between.
The purpose of the Land Claims Settlement was to settle longstanding conflicts over land ownership between the tribe and local commercial, private and governmental interests. Under the settlement, the tribe was to create a land use plan that would work to get the tribe economically solvent and allow business in and around the city to resume. At one time, it was the tribe’s top priority to get a land use plan in place to present to all parties in the settlement and come to an agreement before shovels hit the ground. However, no such plan was completed and the tribe moved forward anyway.
Receivinga settlement package of $162 million in land, fisheries, economic and social development provided the tribe with the foundation it needed to pursue economic ventures including gaming. With the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act having been passed by congress in 1988, the tribe entered into gaming by opening a bingo hall in 1992, just off I-5 in Tacoma. Then in 1996, the tribe opened a popular casino on a paddlewheel boat christened the Emerald Queen that was moored at the Blair Waterway. In 2002, a second EQC location was opened in the building that had housed the bingo hall. Two years later, as part of an agreement with the Port of Tacoma to accommodate further commercial development of the Blair Waterway, the tribe relocated its riverboat gaming center to a temporary facility with tents that is still in use today.
In coming years, tribal leadership spent millions of dollars in pursuing plans for a mega-casino, Cascadia being the first. Cascadia was envisioned to be the ultimate in area casinos and probably could have changed the entire local gaming atmosphere such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for other tribes to expand as quickly and keep up with the Puyallups. Like the Land Claims Settlement land use plan, Cascadia never came to fruition despite all the money that was put into its early planning.
Now, the tribe is in the midst of finally building its mega-casino on Portland Avenue, but problems have beset construction all along the way. First, the opening date was pushed back several times then the coronavirus hit, causing all local casinos to temporarily shut down. With the casino’s adjoining hotel still visibly unfinished, it is unknown exactly when the new casino will open. In a May 4 editorial, the News Tribune editorial board wrote “we feel bad” for the tribe as it weighs whether to re-open one of its casinos in mid to late May, but at the same time stated that people in such close proximity would bring on a new surge of infections.
MISMANAGEMENT AT THE EQC
The history of bad management at the EQC goes all the way back to the riverboat years, when strip club magnate Frank Colacurcio Sr., a known crime figure and racketeer, was busted for giving campaign finance bribes to Seattle City Council members, which made headlines as the Strippergate scandal. Tacoma promoter Stan Naccarato, a close friend of EQC manager Frank Wright, was embroiled in it too, with $700 in cash allegedly passed to him at a boxing match at the EQC that he then gave to one of the Seattle City Council members under investigation. At the time, Nacarrato was so enmeshed with Wright and the tribal council that he once boasted that after Wright, he was second in charge.
Before Wright wrangled his way into the EQC manager position, he was a liaison between the casino and tribal council. With no credentials for any type of casino work, he really didn’t know what he was doing. For example, when Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Wynn, who created some of Las Vegas’ most notable casinos, considered getting into tribal gaming in the early years, he grew so frustrated with Wright and the Puyallup tribal council that he walked away. Nevertheless, Wright was able to manipulate his way into becoming casino manager and now pulls a salary of $1 million a year and with no formal contract. Wright then hired his own circle of equally unqualified friends to run the casino – the tribe’s main producer of income. Under this lack of leadership, over time the EQC became a haven for homeless people, a center of street drug dealing around its perimeter, and the target of a cheating scam that made headlines in the early 2000s.
Led by an organized crime ring known as the “Tran Organization,” Phuong Quoc “Pai Gao John” Truong and his gang of nearly 30 set out on a scheme to cheat casinos up and down the west coast. The EQC was among them, targeted largely because the casino was seen as an easy mark for its lackluster security and easy to persuade staff. Two EQC baccarat dealers were in on the scheme, and ended up being charged and arrested, with another EQC employee tipping Truong off that he was going to be part of a sting operation.
According to the FBI, the Tran Organization’s scheme was the second largest scam in the recent history of gaming. The EQC reported losing about $1 million, although the exact figure isn’t truly known, but Wright and the tribal council never submitted an insurance claim or took any action to recover the loss. Instead, a false report, not generated by council staff, was drawn up stating that $500,000 was allegedly lost but no investigation ensued.
As time wore on, things got worse and worse. Table games made no money and the slot machines were questionable, giving false payouts, and their regulators, which tell how much money was played, how much was paid out and how often, were not audited. This, and an absence of player tracking, made it impossible to trace where all the money was going or coming from. But Wright ran the casino his own way and without interference.
Most tribal members should remember Wright selling his luxury fishing boat to the tribe for $300,000. However, the boat, under construction at a boat yard off Marine View Drive, couldn’t be found for years. It was tribal council member Roleen Hargrove who pushed the deal through, as she was up for tribal council election that year and people liked to butter up Wright because he could show his appreciation financially.
More money conflicts ensued when Wright demanded $20,000 from the casino comptroller to pay his boat builder a storage fee for a deal that Wright cut with him to store outdoor, cast iron lamp posts from the riverboat that, according to Wright, needed to be stored indoors. Wright got into a heated argument over the phone with the comptroller over the matter, with Wright insisting that he needed the money immediately.
MEMBERSHIP WAS WARNED
The tribal council knew all along about Wright’s illicit activities and how volatile things were at the casino, but took no action. In fact, the council hung on Wright’s every word and gave him free rein to do as he pleased.
At a general membership meeting in 2010, tribal council members presented information looking 10 years ahead and stated point-blank that the tribe was headed for financial struggles, largely because of the tribe’s per-capita program and less than impressive income from the casinos. At that time, tribal leadership accurately predicted that the tribal population would stand at approximately 6,300 members by 2020, which would ultimately make the per-capita program unsustainable. However, nothing was done and the years passed doing business as usual.
That the casino has raked in billions of dollars over the years and the tribe is now running out of money begs the question of where did the money go? The tribal council developed no emergency plan and created no “rainy day” fund for the tribe. There is only enough money on hand to re-open just one EQC location as a new, $400 million casino sits unfinished right outside the tribal council’s office windows. On top of this, the council is holding millions of dollars right now that belongs to tribal youth that are due to receive it when they turn 18. Tribal members might want to consider that those funds should rightfully be released now so that families can put the money into certificates of deposit or savings accounts rather than be trusted to a tribal council that obviously isn’t adept at money management.
Now, the tribal council and membership are facing a huge dilemma of how to get back on track with finances. The tribe may have to search out private capital to kick-start their economy, but this in itself presents potential problems. If the council seeks private investments for the casinos, the tribe could lose control. Hargrove found this out the hard way when she sought foreign money for her casino and things got frighteningly complicated for her.
At this point, a management company to run the casinos would be a wise move, one that the tribal membership can trust and work with under the law. In fact, the tribe would be well advised to seek outside help on several fronts. One example would be to partner with large corporations in order to develop tribal properties as a source of income. Already land rich, the tribe’s port property could be used by freight companies doing business at the Port of Tacoma. Other properties could be used for manufacturing interests that would provide jobs to tribal members.
DIVERSIFYING THE INCOME BASE
The tribe itself is full of entrepreneurs who could be a great asset to building the tribe’s business ventures. Putting together an economic development team or task force would help the tribe to get going now on making a solid plan. Tribal nations have government preference when it comes to loans and financial support, offering immediate help for the Puyallup tribe to move forward.
A main and immediate solution to the tribe’s financial difficulties lies in cannabis, which the tribe is already involved in through its two retail cannabis shops. The tribe has it in their compact with the state to sell cannabis at other locations, so the question should be asked as to whether the tribe can sell it at their individual smoke shops.
Cannabis is a lucrative venture that could be highly beneficial if the tribe gets into extracting its own brand of cannabis oils and concentrates, which is not difficult or prohibitively costly to do. It is unknown whether the tribe has grow operations underway, but would be wise to do so. Extracts are the wave of the future where cannabis is concerned, and would be a goldmine for the tribe if done properly with high-end products and competitive pricing. This is again where the tribe’s entrepreneurs would be a big help and it would create job opportunities for tribal members.
Fish and seafood is another avenue to income, particularly with all the talk of food shortages ahead. As a sovereign governmental entity, the tribe is legally allowed to engage in foreign trade, opening up even more markets. Additionally, tribal members could use their cultural rights to harvest seafood, package it and get it to market, creating even more jobs for tribal members.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSIBILITY FAILURES
The Land Claims Settlement represents a modern day treaty between the tribe and local government. The City of Tacoma’s responsibility to work with the tribe under the settlement terms is vast, however the city continually violates the requirements, most recently by taking a hands-off approach to the tribe’s new casino construction. The tribe violates the agreement as well, as it calls for a review of the tribe’s land use plan every five years, but no such plan exists.
The re-development of the Portland Avenue corridor is another case of the city and tribe failing to work together. In 2005, the city commissioned ECONorthwest in Eugene to prepare a study titled “Portland Avenue Economic Evaluation,” which examined re-developing the Portland Avenue corridor from approximately 28thStreet to 44thStreet with emphasis on the northern area near I-5.
Though both City and ECO representatives contacted the tribe to include their perspective on redevelopment in the area, the tribe never responded. Thus, much of the evaluation in the report with respect to future Tribal development had to be speculative. With the tribe being an important property and business owner in the study area, with major land holdings at the gateway to Portland Avenue off I-5, their casino expansion plans when the study was written interfered with formulating a clear vision for the area.
The report was created in expectation of large development projects that were on the table in 2005, including an expanded EQC casino, which didn’t happen, and a large public housing development that did happen – Tacoma Housing Authority’s Salishan development. Together, these projects suggested the potential for new residential options, additional traffic and new retail amenities in the area.
As stated in the report: “Some factors that might substantially slow the pace and scale of redevelopment is uncertainty surrounding future tribal developments. Though an ambitious plan for tribal lands has been drafted and an environmental assessment conducted (for unmet casino expansion plans), the tribe has not implemented any part of this plan. The uncertainly surrounding the timing, scope, and nature of this development could be a deterrent to redevelopment in the area. If the city actively partners with the tribe, however, this uncertainly can be eliminated and future tribal developments could become an asset to the area.”
America is now facing its worst economic situation since the Great Depression. Areas like the Eastside will be hit extremely hard but would benefit from working with local governments for redevelopment from the Dome district all the way out to Salishan, and working with Sound Transit to build the best possible route that fits the needs of both the city and the tribe. These types of partnerships can add up to change the gateway to the city of Tacoma in a way that suits everyone involved. There are ways that the tribe, city, county and state could work government to government with the feds to get in on New Deal type of funding to rebuild infrastructure in America, depending, of course, on who will be our next president.
For the Puyallup tribal membership, to remain self-sufficient and in charge of their own destiny as indigenous people is the most important aspect of everything that the tribe is facing right now. Tribal members should keep in mind that our elected representatives at the city, county, state and federal levels represent them too and should be held accountable to partner with the tribe as never before for the betterment of everyone who lives and works here.
A letter to the Puyallup tribal membership
For 18 years, you – the Puyallup membership – knew me and worked closely with me in my job as the tribe’s media spokesman and publisher of the Puyallup Tribal News. I quickly grew to love the tribe, and still consider my closest friends there to be more than that – I consider you as family. Any tribal members who think that I have a personal vendetta or agenda against the tribe are absolutely wrong. I am still here and with you in spirit to help you get through this coronavirus crisis that has hit the tribe particularly hard.
When I first came to the tribe, I was supposed to stay just a short time to help the tribal council establish better footing with the local media and to improve the quality and content of the Puyallup Tribal News. As I got older, my dream was to give the Tacoma Weekly to the tribe, working with Chief Leschi students and other youth to get their journalism degrees and have a solid career ahead of them and run the Puyallup Tribal News. However, that never happened.
Over those 18 years, I was paid $2,500 a month to handle all aspects of public relations for the tribe, and my company was paid $75 an hour to cover the salaries of 12 employees that worked to organize, write, design and distribute the Puyallup Tribal News and all the publications that we did for the tribe. That equates to paying my employees $6.25 an hour for work performed, obviously well below the minimum wage.
Council forced me to hire tribal members and to pay salaries for people who never showed up to work, and we know that the council is very used to having ghost employees that hold positions at the tribe that never show up to work yet keep getting paid.
As the tribe’s media director, I took on every problem and solved it while getting false promises from Bill Sterud that money council owed to my company would get paid. We often subsidized the tribal budget by absorbing costs to produce the paper, including the cost to run legal notices and ads that the tribal council ordered and that I paid for out of my own pocket. Now, I am still owed more than $700,000 in unpaid bills. Your council made promises to settle with me for $150,000, but I have yet to see that payment arrive.
I have every right to be bitter and angry, but I am not. That is not how things are going to be solved. You have been lied to by council and EQC management, and I was part of that. I regret not standing up sooner. Many tribal members know who I am and how I often dipped into my own pocket to give to someone who needed it. Members who know me know that my attempts to help the membership are real. The only thing I can do is tell your stories like I did for such a long time – and you have great stories to tell.
What I see as so sad for the Puyallup tribal nation are all the lost opportunities due to greed, mismanagement, family favoritism and buying tribal votes to get re-elected each year. The EQC management and council have squandered millions, leaving the tribe with your brand new casino empty. I know full well that if the tribe were led down a better path of success, that you would be taking care of the entire community as we battle this virus and economic doom in front of us at this very uncertain time, with the fear of Trump getting re-elected and bad politics everywhere. We have to roll up our sleeves together to build a better community. It’s not just about me, the tribe and city of Tacoma – it’s about the whole region and world that we must face together.