Legislation that could end Wyoming tribes’ grip on legalized gambling in the state spawned an aggressive, secretive lobbying effort — and helped illustrate a rift between leaders of one of Wyoming’s tribes this year as it made drastic changes to casino management and advisers.
Lawmakers in Wyoming seemed poised to pass an assortment of gambling measures during the last legislative session that some advisers and the Northern Arapaho’s former casino boss said would have devastated that tribe’s gaming revenue. The tribe’s gaming enterprise, which includes its flagship Wind River Hotel & Casino, is Fremont County’s largest employer.
At the time it employed about 500 people, mostly Northern Arapaho enrolled members.
If passed and gambling was legalized statewide, former casino CEO Jim Conrad had estimated that the casino could lose out on 40 percent or more of its annual revenue.
“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,” Mark Howell, the tribe’s former federal lobbyist, said in July.
That’s where the Wyoming Public Policy Center, a shadowy and so-called grassroots organization, comes in. The organization started aggressively lobbying legislators to oppose any legislation that would regulate or expand legalized gambling in the state. Exposure in July of tribal money being used to create the group would soon expose a bitter disagreement over who authorized its creation
After Howell, the tribe’s longtime Washington D.C.-based lobbyist at the time, filed paperwork in late June listing a tribal leader and the casino as the primary funder of the WPPC, the tribe’s Business Council fired him, saying they had no prior knowledge of the effort and never authorized casino money to be spent on the campaign.
The purpose of the group, Howell and others have said, was for the tribe to defeat legislation. Given the history of the Northern Arapaho’s casino – which doesn’t share revenue with the state like the Eastern Shoshone’s gaming enterprises – and other tribal issues between the state and tribes over the years, having the tribe’s name attached to the WPPC would weaken its ability to effectively lobby against the measures.
“Chairman (Lee) Spoonhunter was especially forceful in his instruction to Mr. Howell to oppose legislation legalizing Vegas style slot machines off reservation,” Business Council Co-Chairman Addison — the chairman of the Wyoming Public Policy Center, according to Howell — and Business Council Sam Dresser wrote in a statement speaking out against Howell’s termination at the time.
The Star-Tribune also received documents and emails that show Howell informing the Business Council in the month leading up to his firing of his efforts. Those emails and other documents suggest the tribe was aware of, and authorized, the creation of the WPPC from the start.
The tribe and the majority of the Business Council have officially maintained that they had no knowledge and never approved financing or creating the Wyoming Public Policy Center. In addition, the Northern Arapaho General Council – a governing body that oversees the elected Business Council – voted in August to ban “in perpetuity” Howell, former casino CEO Conrad and the tribe’s longtime and former law firm, Lander-based Baldwin Crocker & Rudd from ever working for the tribe.
“They (the Business Council) 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),” Keith Harper, an attorney with new tribal law firm Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton told the Star-Tribune after it fired Howell. “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 controversy over responsibility for the WPPC also came amid contentious other changes being made to tribal advisers and management of the casino. In June of this year, Conrad’s contract expired and wasn’t renewed. Then, soon after Howell was fired, the tribe sued its former law firm, alleging that the firm had withheld documents the tribe owned, excessively billed the tribe and failed to return tribal money the firm held in trust.
The Lander firm has denied the allegation, defended them or produced evidence that it had paid transferred money it held in trust back to the tribe.
The tribe had fired the firm in June and hired the Atlanta-based Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton. That lawsuit prompted counter lawsuits and counter claims. Tribal leaders and its new lawyers have also publicly alleged that Howell and Conrad conspired to create the WPPC and excessively or secretly spent tribal money during the final months they worked for the tribe – allegations which they have denied.
The lawsuits are pending in federal court, and both sides have denied any allegations of wrongdoing.
One reason the tribe said it wanted to bring in new casino management was to reign in expenses and increase the payments the casino makes to the tribe’s coffers.
Despite the tribe’s opposition to the legislation, lawmakers have revived their efforts to potentially expand gambling in Wyoming during the 2020 legislative session.
In October, the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation and Cultural Resources agreed to advance a bill that would expand the duties of the state’s Pari-Mutuel Commission – which oversees horse racing – to encompass gaming.
If approved, the new gaming commission would regulate and enforce legalized gaming in any county that chooses to implement it, with proceeds from skill game operations going to the municipalities and counties in which they take place.
But the bill does not legalize gambling outright. Counties will have to opt in to the commission and its regulations, meaning voters in those counties will have to vote to make gambling legal.
“I think this committee realizes that, whether you’re for or against gaming, the only way to be able to control it is through a gaming commission,” said Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, in October. “There just isn’t any other way. Under existing statutes, law enforcement currently isn’t willing to take on someone running a machine because of the inherent risk of lawsuits that come along with it.”
Driskill had invited interests like the gaming industry to law enforcement to hash out a compromise over regulating an operation many see as growing too fast to control.
At the October meeting, one member of the Business Council, Sam Dresser – one of the two who have said the tribe financed the WPPC from the start – testified against the bill.
“If that bill passes,” he said in an interview with the Star-Tribune after the hearing. “It’s going to hurt us.”