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Overton Sankey plays slots at the Wind River Hotel and Casino in 2014 in Riverton. Records show that the casino put more than $80,000 toward a mystery lobbying group fighting regulated gambling in Wyoming.

A casino managed by the Northern Arapaho tribe gave thousands of dollars to a highly secretive organization trying to kill regulated gambling in Wyoming, records show, but tribal officials say they were duped by their lobbyist who set up the group.

The tribe fired the lobbyist, Mark Howell, on Monday. Howell — and a minority of tribal leadership — denied the officials’ version of events, saying they ordered the group’s creation.

According to disclosure reports filed Monday with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office, the Wind River Hotel and Casino put more than $80,000 into the Wyoming Public Policy Center, which formed prior to the 2019 legislative session. The group has spent more than $60,000 in lobbying expenses and engaged in a sophisticated digital multi-platform advertising campaign, which featured petition drives and issue-specific policy papers on gambling regulations.

Silent after the legislative session, the group reinvigorated its efforts last month after the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation and Cultural Resources announced it would be taking up several gambling regulation bills at a meeting in Gillette.

At that meeting, which took place late last week, the joint committee decided not to pursue a gambling commission. The Wyoming Public Policy Center had a lobbyist present — Bruce Asay — but the group offered neither testimony nor comment during the public comment section of the meeting.

Little had been known about the group’s activities prior to Monday’s filing, with rumors swirling about the Wyoming Public Policy Center’s backers for months. Hidden behind a wall of anonymous business filings in multiple jurisdictions, the group had been afforded a level of secrecy unavailable in states with stricter corporate filing laws.

Differing accounts

Keith Harper, a representative for the tribe in Washington, said the Wyoming Public Policy Center was set up without the knowledge of the tribe or the rest of the casino’s management.

Harper told the Star-Tribune the Northern Arapaho Business Council — which has oversight of the casino and its operations — was not informed of the casino’s role until sometime in the past several days, when their long-time lobbyist, Mark Howell, told tribal officials the casino would be named on lobbyist disclosure forms filed with the Secretary of State’s office.

“This comes as an utter shock to the tribe and the business council,” Harper said. “They were completely unaware of the actions Mr. Howell was taking in forming this entity. He did it behind their backs with the CEO of the casino (Jim Conrad) — who has also been terminated. These are actions that lack in transparency that the tribe believes is essential. The governing body of the tribes — Mr. (Lee) Spoonhunter and others — are appalled by these actions.”

The tribe echoed this in a statement sent to the Star-Tribune late Monday afternoon, which said the majority of the council did not know about the organization, with the exception of Northern Arapaho Business Council co-chairman Al Addison and councilman Sam Dresser.

“Upon learning of this, the Council took immediate action to terminate Mr. Howell’s contract with the Tribe,” the statement read. “We are currently conducting an internal review to determine the extent of the transgressions of Mr. Howell and anyone else who may have been involved.”

“The Northern Arapaho Business Council is committed to transparency and accountability,” the statement added. “We’ve notified the National Indian Gaming Commission of this matter, and we will fully cooperate with all regulators and proper authorities to ensure the long term protection and success of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.”

Howell, who is also based in Washington, denied the allegations in a phone call Monday to the Star-Tribune. He said tribal leadership directly ordered him in a series of meetings to do “whatever it takes” to defeat gaming regulations in the Legislature since first becoming aware of pending legislation in October.

Howell said that tribal leadership was fully aware of his activities, telling the Star-Tribune on Monday that he had met with Spoonhunter in December, where he approved the initial website for the Wyoming Public Policy Center and the initial advertisements they planned to run.

“Chairman Spoonhunter was especially forceful in his instruction to Mr. Howell to oppose legislation legalizing Vegas style slot machines off reservation,” Addison — the chairman of the Wyoming Public Policy Center, according to Howell — and Dresser wrote in a statement speaking out against Howell’s termination.

An economic imperative

Defeating gaming regulation, Howell said, was imperative to tribal leadership.

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In the months leading up to the 2019 legislative session, Conrad, the casino’s former CEO, allegedly did a “back of the envelope” analysis of gambling regulations, saying that if certain gaming regulations were to pass, it would result in upward of $14 million in lost revenues every year due to new restrictions on the more than 800 slot machines it operates.

“It would have meant major job reductions, and there would be no ability to provide for social services programs for the tribe from the casino,” Howell said. “The council was informed of all this, and that’s when they authorized everything.”

The reason the tribe pursued a route of secrecy, Howell said, was because they felt their concerns would “not be taken seriously” by the Legislature.

“They felt they would be discounted as just another special interest, so they chose to go about it a different way,” Howell said.

Investigation coming

Some members of the Northern Arapaho tribe say they were kept in the dark about the group, as well as the source of the funding behind it, Harper said. Conrad was “very secretive,” Harper said, and refused to provide any financial information about the casino and its business dealings to members of the business council, one of the reasons the tribe refused to renew his contract earlier this summer.

“This new council elected back in 2018 is reform-minded and recognized Mr. Conrad and Mr. Howell were not serving the best interests of the tribe,” Harper said. “These were the two individuals wholly responsible for forming this entity, for hatching this plan, and for implementing it. And they utilized the resources of the casino in order to do this, without prior approval from the business council.”

“Rest assured we will investigate all of this,” he added. “There’s a lot of smoke, and we believe that smoke will indicate fire. We will make sure the books are in order. This is a new day for the Northern Arapaho Tribe.”

Howell said he welcomes the investigation, and expects to be vindicated in investigators’ findings.

“I am prepared to fully cooperate with any federal investigators,” Howell said. “I will assure anyone who says the business council did not authorize this will be in violation of criminal conduct under the U.S. code. They will be lying to a federal investigator. They can lie to you, but they can’t lie to federal investigators. That’s when it’s going to come out.”

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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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