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Tribal leaders knew of anti-regulatory lobbying effort, documents and 2 council members say

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Overton Sankey plays slots at the Wind River Hotel and Casino in Riverton in 2014. The hotel and casino is operated by the Northern Arapaho Tribe. 

Northern Arapaho tribal leaders knew of — and approved — a secretive lobbying effort to kill legislative attempts to regulate gambling in the state, despite claims that a rogue lobbyist undertook the project without their knowledge, according to documents and interviews with those with knowledge of the effort.

The documents — memos, emails and texts obtained by the Star-Tribune — and interviews with those aware of the effort indicate that the Northern Arapaho Business Council agreed to fund the creation of a group, the Wyoming Public Policy Center. The lobbying effort aggressively opposed proposals to legalize gambling in Wyoming during the 2019 legislative session to protect its three casinos, the tribe’s most important economic assets. Those proposals were defeated, but lawmakers have since resurrected an attempt at regulating gambling.

Mark Howell, a former lobbyist who coordinated the WPPC, and others warned tribal leaders that if those efforts were unsuccessful, it would likely mean millions of dollars in lost revenue a year, leading to scaled-back casino operations, layoffs for many of the more than 500 employees of the tribe’s gambling enterprise and reduced social services and other programs for Northern Arapaho citizens, according to a June 3 memo and emails.

But Northern Arapaho leaders and advisers felt it should avoid linking the group to the tribe, which has no gaming revenue sharing agreement with the state, for as long as possible so lawmakers would view the WPPC as a sincere grassroots effort, according to business council members Anthony “Al” Addison and Samuel Dresser.

The Star-Tribune agreed to not name some of its sources, who had detailed information about the business council’s efforts, to allow them to freely discuss internal affairs.

When June 30 public disclosures with the Secretary of State’s office revealed that the Northern Arapaho Tribe-owned Wind River Hotel and Casino funded and established the Wyoming Public Policy Center, the tribe fired Howell, saying the majority of the business council “had no prior knowledge of the WPPC and any purported use of tribal monies.”

At the time, Howell, Addison and Samuel Dresser denied that the business council was unaware of the effort, saying instead that it had ordered its creation. The documents and interviews with two additional sources who knew of the events back those claims and the tribe verbally authorized creating the sophisticated effort at least as early as November, while receiving frequent briefings on the WPPC and continuing to authorize it until at least late April.

Addison and Dresser again confirmed their original statement for this story and said they don’t know why their four colleagues on the business council said they didn’t know about the lobbying effort.

“These guys, they knew about it,” Dresser said. “I don’t know why they denied it.”

Jim Conrad, the former CEO of the casino, also said he had the business council’s OK to fund the WPPC from the start.

“We wouldn’t have done anything without their approval,” said Conrad, whose contract with the tribe expired on June 30.

Representatives for the tribe didn’t address a detailed list of 13 questions the Star-Tribune sent to them and the four business council members who denied having any knowledge of the WPPC until shortly before Howell’s firing.

In a statement released by spokesman Matthew Benson, the Northern Arapaho Business Council said it never authorized the WPPC and wasn’t aware of the effort until just before it fired Howell.

“As we have consistently said, the majority of the Northern Arapaho Business Council ... had no prior knowledge of the Wyoming Public Policy Center (“WPPC”) and its purported use of tribal funds,” the statement read. “Any assertion to the contrary is false and defamatory.”

The statement said that the tribe was opposed to the gambling legislation legislators discussed.

The other four business council members — Chariman Lee Spoonhunter, Stephen Fast Horse, Kim Harjo and Clarinda Calling Thunder — who claimed to have no knowledge of the WPPC didn’t respond to emails requesting interviews or answers to the questions.

The business council’s six elected members are the tribe’s day-to-day governing body, though supreme authority rests with a tribal General Council, which requires a quorum of all adult voting tribal members to act. The majority of the business council’s denials about responsibility for approving of the public policy center further illustrates a divide between council members — who traditionally strive to act unanimously — that’s resulted in the tribe firing or not renewing the contracts of many longtime advisers.

***

If the tribe’s efforts failed and gambling expanded in Wyoming, its gaming enterprise — the Northern Arapaho’s most important economic tool and Fremont County’s largest employer — could lose out on $14 million a year, according to a June 3 memo and emails Howell sent to the business council.

That would be a major loss — nearly 40 percent — for a gambling operation that made an average of about $35.9 million between 2016 and 2018, according to an April casino consulting report, and already faces challenges attracting customers because of its isolated location.

Mapping out a strategy to defeat gambling bills started as early as 2018, according to a June 3 memo from Howell to the business council.

In an undated letter, Howell sent Conrad, then the CEO of the casino, a proposal to hire high-powered Washington-area political consulting firm The Tarrance Group for $38,000 to conduct a statewide study to better understand the state’s gaming market, including consumer behavior. After this, Howell wrote, Potomac Partners Corporation, his affiliate, would provide “an additional proposal for full implementation services.”

On Oct. 23, Howell emailed a pair of researchers with the Tarrance Group outlining the concerns of the tribes as well as the scope of the study, which he wrote would be used to “consider a communications and lobbying effort to defeat the proposed legislation.”

“We want to look at the favorable and unfavorable of the State legislature,” Howell wrote, referring to the figure that projects how positively lawmakers will respond to legislation. “And we should test if the voters view their individual members differently than the legislature itself. We should also test the favorable/unfavorable of the Governor.”

A month later, at a Nov. 27 meeting, the business council discussed the WPPC and approved its creation, according to sources, including Addison and Howell, with knowledge of the effort. That’s the earliest date the Star-Tribune could confirm that a quorum of business council members knew of and approved the WPPC.

The strategy would be the first time the tribe took such a secretive approach in its lobbying, according to Howell.

Addison, who has served on the business council for 22 of the last 25 years since he was elected in 1994, said he couldn’t recall a time when the tribe used a dark money approach like the WPPC.

The four business council members besides Addison and Dresser maintain they were unaware of the WPPC at the time. In a statement provided by Benson, they said politics were to blame for the allegations.

“For far too long, the Tribe was financially taken advantage of by individuals and groups we trusted – including Mr. Howell and our longtime legal counsel at the law firm of Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd,” the statement reads. “Over the past year, Mr. Howell and the law firm extracted from the tribe approximately $100,000 per month in fees. Substantial additional funds were paid from casino revenues by Mr. Conrad, with no authorization by the Council whatsoever. Notably, the Council has severed all ties with both of these individuals as well as our former law firm, whom we’ve sued in Wyoming District Court. We continue to uncover disturbing details about the financial entanglement that benefited these individuals to the detriment of Tribal members and residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation.”

The former law firm, and Howell, have denied any wrongdoing. In a June memo after the firm was fired, the firm said any allegation that it tried to control or take advantage of the tribe were false.

“We provide independent legal advice, including recommendations that the Council does not always like or want to hear,” the firm wrote. “Lawyers who are no more than ‘yes men’ provide a real disservice to their clients.”

On Friday, Addison and Dresser, along with two former casino managers, filed a lawsuit against the tribe’s new law firm, Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, accusing it of orchestrating a hostile takeover of tribal and gaming affairs.

***

Prior to the legislative session, Howell met with tribal leadership several times in Las Vegas and Casper to discuss the tribe’s lobbying strategy, according to an invoice and copies of text messages provided by Howell. On Dec. 11, Howell flew to Las Vegas for a meeting with Spoonhunter and Kelly Rudd, an attorney with the tribe’s former law firm, those documents show.

On Dec. 14 and 15, the NABC again verbally authorized continuation of the WPPC during several days of meetings in Casper that included briefings on the effort, according to sources, including Addison, with knowledge of the effort.

The WPPC tried to derail gambling regulation attempts through social media posts and calls for voters to contact their legislators and encourage them to oppose the measures. Other efforts included employing experienced lobbyists and anonymously authored policy papers.

Howell appears to have attempted to inform the business council of the imminent threat of gaming legislation set to appear during the 2019 session of the Wyoming Legislature. On Dec. 18, Howell forwarded a link to a Star-Tribune article on electronic skill games in an email addressed to all members of the business council as well as several top officials at the Wind River Casino.

Within days of the start of the 2019 general session, Howell already had concerns that the legislation opposed by the tribe was likely to pass if the Northern Arapaho did not begin to take action.

At a meeting of the Senate Committee on Travel, Recreation and Cultural Resources on Jan. 10 in Cheyenne, lawmakers seemed willing to pass legislation imposing gambling regulation in Wyoming, and Howell — who had been watching the proceedings — alerted the tribes of what he saw as an inevitable outcome.

The following week, on Jan. 14, Howell briefed members of the business council on the WPPC and was again verbally authorized to continue the effort, according to Addison and another source with knowledge of the meeting. The WPPC hired two long-time lobbyists — Bruce Asay and Nicholas Agopian — and began work to defeat the two bills.

According to emails obtained by the Star-Tribune, tribal leadership was kept aware of these bills working their way through the Legislature. On Jan. 18, Howell sent an email to tribal leadership — including Spoonhunter — discussing the bills and what they intended to accomplish with that legislation.

“I have reviewed both of these documents and there are many flaws in both bills,” Howell wrote. “I stand ready to visit with you about these issues.”

On Jan. 22, then-casino CEO Conrad sent a letter to Sen. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, as well as Rep. Andi Clifford, R-Riverton; Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander; and Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, urging them to fight against both bills due to anticipated effects their passage may have on the casinos on the reservation.

“Casino profits are dedicated to create job creation, our wellness program and good works like the day-care center we currently have under construction,” Conrad wrote. “These bills would disrupt the current balance, and make it much harder to manage our casino in a way that is focused on community development.”

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Meanwhile, Howell continued to send regular updates to tribal leadership about the status of both pieces of gaming legislation, sending emailed updates to tribal leaders on Jan. 31 and on Feb. 5, both of which Conrad was CC’ed on.

***

The WPPC’s usefulness as a tool to anonymously fight for tribal interests was soon apparent.

Even after the session, Howell continued contact with the business council, keeping it apprised of developments like off-track betting businesses and the revival of several pieces of gaming legislation during the interim.

“If the State legalizes such gaming, it will have a significant negative impact on Northern Arapaho gaming profits,” Howell wrote to business council leadership in an email on March 15. “Howell Consulting would recommend that we have a serious discussion about these issues very soon.”

With gaming legislation set to make a return to the docket in the 2019 interim, Howell alerted tribal leadership to take up lobbying efforts once again and asked them for authorization to reactivate the WPPC to fight that legislation.

“Now that the Legislature is implementing its schedule, our efforts will be activated immediately,” Howell wrote. “These activities will require significant resources. Consistent with our previous authorizations, we will initially retain local lobbying services, build the proper on-line platforms and re-energize existing platforms. Howell Consulting will coordinate all funding with your gaming management team.”

At an April 23 meeting at the Lander offices of Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd, the tribe’s former law firm, the NABC again authorized Howell to continue with the WPPC after he briefed the council, according to sources, including Addison, with knowledge of the effort.

Benson, the Northern Aprapaho Tribe’s spokesman, said the Star-Tribune’s assertions about the tribe’s role in the WPPC are false because the business council “makes policy decisions via formal resolutions that are approved by a majority vote and memorialized as public records” and that no such recorded resolutions exist.

However, according to the Star-Tribune’s sources, including Addison and Dresser, the tribe deliberately authorized the WPPC’s funding and creation only verbally to ensure that the tribe’s role in the lobbying effort remained hidden.

Addison said the tribe decided to “keep it confidential” to ensure that it wasn’t seen as “strictly a casino issue.”

Howell detailed the WPPC’s work in a June 3 memo addressed to NABC leadership, in which Howell outlined orders he was handed by tribal leadership to undertake “a more aggressive effort” to defeat gambling legislation during the 2019 session and coordinate those efforts with Conrad to pay for the work.

“As the Northern Arapaho Business Council is aware from our previous briefings, Howell Consulting was tasked by the Council with the responsibility of monitoring and taking all reasonable and necessary actions to prevent legislation from passing in the Wyoming Legislature which could expand legalized gambling in the state,” he wrote. “Our efforts included retaining three seperate (sic) lobbyists in Cheyenne and creating a ‘grass-roots’ mobilization and advocacy organization, known as the Wyoming Public Policy Center.”

In a July 1 statement sent to the Star-Tribune and posted on the tribe’s official Facebook page announcing Howell’s firing, the tribe said it had fired him immediately after he allegedly told them for the first time about the WPPC in a memo. It didn’t say when the business council received the memo.

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It’s unclear if council members — at least those who claim Howell acted without their knowledge — made any attempt to correct Howell on his alleged misstatements that the tribe had been involved in and approved the WPPC. It’s also unclear why, if the tribe was informed of alleged wrongdoing for the first time on June 3, it took nearly a month to announce the firing of Howell.

What is clear, from correspondence reviewed by the Star-Tribune, is that Howell continued to communicate through email and text messages — and receive responses from some NABC members, including Spoonhunter — about the WPPC and lobbying against gambling legislation until June 29.

On June 12, Howell sent draft memos to Debbie Antelope, the business council’s secretary, reauthorizing Howell to “undertake any and all activities” he deemed necessary to defeat the gaming legislation, citing the potential for “catastrophic loss of revenues” for the casino. In the interest of time and efficiency, Howell was authorized to “devise and carry out these plans and actions at his discretion without any NABC review or approval,” according to the memo.

A separate draft memo authorized all funding requests be submitted to the Wind River Hotel and Casino, with instructions to provide the funds to Howell in a timely fashion and by “whatever means of transfer he requests,” the memo wrote.

Two weeks later, on June 25, Howell reached out again, telling tribal leadership that the WPPC would be required by law to file a report with the secretary of state’s office showing its expenditures and donations. In that report, he wrote, it would be revealed that the Wind River Casino and the Northern Arapaho Tribe had been significant donors to the WPPC.

“It is highly likely that the report will generate significant interest from reporters throughout the State,” Howell wrote. “There WILL be significant press coverage.”

He then told tribal leadership he would be preparing a press release and asked if any tribal members would like to be quoted.

It appears that only Addison responded.

“Thank you for the info, and keeping on top of it,” he wrote.

The next day, Howell resent the draft memos from earlier in June to Spoonhunter and Antelope — at Spoonhunter’s request — so they could be put on the NABC’s agenda, according to text messages between him and Spoonhunter.

“Thanks and just so you know I will support this effort,” Spoonhunter texted Howell.

And in a June 29 email detailing a meeting the day before by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation and Cultural Resources, where committee members did not sponsor gambling regulation, Howell told the NABC: “As you are also aware, based on my previous briefings, the Wyoming Public Policy Center (WPPC) dialed up its efforts about 10 days prior to the committee hearing and based on comments from various legislators, the WPPC clearly had an impact once again.”

However, at the urging of leaders in the Legislature, lawmakers revived the idea of a statewide gaming commission in late July — weeks after it was revealed that the tribe had funded the WPPC.

***

Prior to that revelation, many lawmakers were largely unaware of the tribe’s involvement in the Wyoming Public Policy Commission, they said in interviews with the Star-Tribune.

And, according to Addison, that was the intention.

He said if lawmakers knew the tribe led the push against legalizing gambling, the WPPC could fail because many lawmakers wouldn’t support an issue seen as mostly benefiting the tribe’s casinos, which don’t share revenue with the state. There was also the concern, Howell said, that other interests — like bar owners and the skills game lobby — would have their interests prioritized.

For several years in Wyoming, tribal interests were represented in the Legislature by a pair of tribal liaisons confirmed by the Senate.

The liaisons, for a time, were two formal, executive branch positions created by 2015 legislation intended to “encourage mutual respect, understanding and leadership between the state and the Northern Arapaho tribe and the Eastern Shoshone tribe.” However useful, those positions have long been a political boondoggle, even prior to 2015, with questions of who should fund those positions or what the role should even look like often debated.

The state eliminated funding for those positions in a slew of budget cuts several years ago. Through an appropriation in the 2019 supplemental budget, those positions have returned this year, filling a critical function in smoothing communications between the tribes and the state.

“Sometimes these issues are very complicated, they have a lot of detail into it, and it takes some time to kind of get that information across,” Leslie Shakespeare, a former tribal liaison for the Eastern Shoshone and current Eastern Shoshone Business Council co-chairman, said in a 2016 interview with Wyoming PBS about tribal relations. “It’s important because some of these issues require action. Overall, I think that’s the most important issue — that communication.”

Attempts have been made to smooth those relationships — particularly on a recent compromise struck on tribal burial sites that overlap with oil and gas development sites — but there have been moments of tension between the tribes and the state, with both tribes often concerned with the amount of recognition state government gives the tribes’ sovereignty.

Sergio Maldonado, a former tribal liaison for the Northern Arapaho tribe and a several-time candidate for the Wyoming Legislature, noted in that same interview a certain lingering dissatisfaction over long-decided cases like the Big Horn River General Adjudication, a 1977 water rights case closed in 2014.

Gaming has long been another concern, and there has been a longstanding tension between the tribes and the state over the tribes’ decision to pursue gaming as a primary source of revenue in the years after the 1988 passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act by Congress — the primary reason Howell, a gaming regulation expert, was hired by the tribes.

The tribes eventually sued the state in federal district court over the state’s unwillingness to compromise, an incident that had a lasting effect on the tribes’ trust in the state.

Even after acknowledging the tensions of the past, Bebout, the Riverton senator, said he was unaware of any specific reason why the Northern Arapaho tribe would try to influence legislation in secret. He highlighted the work done by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Tribal Relations over the years, which has sought to develop legislation around requests of the tribe, and pointed out that the tribe has lobbied the Legislature before without feeling the need to be anonymous.

However, Bebout acknowledged that there might be some residual mistrust of the state. In an interview, Bebout cited a controversial 2017 decision by a district court judge against the conditions of a 1905 land treaty, which the tribes argued drew the boundaries of the Wind River Reservation to encompass Riverton — an issue on which Bebout and the tribes disagreed.

“Maybe there’s some animosity over that,” said Bebout. “But the issue’s long-decided now, and the boundary is where it is.”

Howell said Bebout’s assessment of the situation is a correct one, telling the Star-Tribune that all of these issues created ample tension among the tribes toward not only the Legislature but also the state’s executive and judicial branches.

“There is no doubt that the tensions that were created from the political battles over the Big Horn Adjudication, Class III gaming and the reservation boundaries issue combined to create a tense relationship between the tribes of the Wind River Reservation,” Howell said. “That includes (former) governors and members of the Legislature.”

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Chris Aadland covers the Wind River Reservation and tribal affairs for the Star-Tribune as a Report for America corps member. A Minnesota native, he spent the last two years reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal before moving to Wyoming in June 2019.

Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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