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Puyallup Tribe remains tight-lipped on report leak

TACOMA, Wash. – The Puyallup Tribe suffered a public relations nightmare in May when a tribal insider leaked a confidential and disparaging report on the Emerald Queen casinos.

The report, leaked to the Tacoma News Tribune, was critical of the tribe and upper management, and listed numerous problems that were meant for tribal officials eyes only. Issues ranged from low employee morale to inadequate gaming oversight, along with poor overall management.

Lamar & Associates, a Native-owned security investigative firm out of Washington, D.C., was hired by tribal officials to conduct the review and audit last summer. The review and audit took less than a week to conduct.

They called on Las Vegas casino executive Joe Manno to spearhead the investigation, and a team of six other investigators to review records and interview employees. Manno was the former senior vice president of Caesar’s World and manager of Las Vegas’ Bally Casino.

The news was also grim when it came to the casinos reaping their fair share of gaming revenue. They came up substantially short in their prime location when compared with nearby gaming establishments. Both casinos are located off I-5 in Tacoma and Fife, considered one of the state’s busiest corridors.

In 2007, the tribe netted $275.5 million, but investigators found that the net figure should be $40 million higher. While this could be taken as positive criticism, something for the tribe to work on improving, the other information leaked and reported by the media has left some wounds.

The report blamed lax internal security for long-running scams, for instance, Phuong Quoc Truong, known as “Pai Gow John,” who operated his scams for six to seven months at the casinos. He reportedly stole up to $800,000 in less than two hours. He pleaded guilty to charges of theft and racketeering in 2008.

Unreported financial discrepancies were cited as another cause for theft going unnoticed, along with lack of an autonomous gaming regulatory body that operates without the influence of tribal and family politics. It was suggested that the tribe form such a body.

Investigators also picked up on the low employee morale just by watching how most failed to smile when interacting with guests. They also conducted interviews. While the number of employees interviewed was unclear, those interviewed allegedly said tribal members were promoted to positions they were not qualified for, and were given preference in choosing days off and vacation time. Those interviewed wanted to remain anonymous in fear of reprisal.

Other parts of the report leaked were even more scathing, like how up to 20 “ghost” employees who rarely or never showed up to work, somehow managed to collect paychecks. Investigators unanimously agreed that the appearance of the casino was subpar when compared to surrounding competitors properties, and that adjustments need to be made.

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Since the article was released in May, the tribe has commented little.

Tribal Councilman David Bean said he preferred to let Chairman Herman Dillon Sr. comment to Indian Country Today, but was critical of local media.

“A lot of things were blown out of proportion and some things were taken out of context,” he said, referring to the Tribune article. “It’s nothing new as the Tribune is concerned, they don’t put anything out there unless it’s negative and avarice to the tribe.”

Dillon failed to provide a comment as of press time, as well as other tribal officials Bean said he would contact for comments.

Bean would like to see the local media focus on positive things the tribe has done, such as pouring millions of dollars into the community, and the 2,000 jobs created at the Fife and Tacoma locations. He said the tribe has yet to layoff any employees during the recession, and the casinos are currently hiring.

Robert Satiacum, a member of the group Full Circle, viewed the article as positive since it brought light to problems already evident to many tribal members. “I know there are a lot of tribal members disgruntled with the operations of [the casinos] and I think that it was a favorable article. It could have been more damning as far as the tribe’s state of affairs and casino goes.”

Satiacum said he and other Puyallup tribal members started Full Circle nearly four years ago to help foster support for a tribal government that operates transparently, and is devoid of favoritism and nepotism practices. He credited Bean and newer council members for their efforts to create an honest tribal council.

In May, Emerald Queen’s General Manager Frank Wright was nearly fired by the tribal council on allegations of financial misconduct. The council was deadlocked 3-3, but Dillon cast the tie-breaking vote in his favor.

Satiacum was displeased that no one alerted him and other tribal members that he knows to that particular meeting to voice their concerns on the issue. “Frank has no bosses, and as I hear he’s the highest paid guy of the whole tribe. As I always understood, we all have bosses.”

Walter Lamar, of Lamar & Associates, said he could only offer a brief comment, as an in-depth discussion would breach the confidentiality agreement he made with the tribe prior to conducting the investigation.

“We were hired to do basically a bumper-to-bumper examination of the facility and that we provided a report that was meant for the council’s eyes only, and that the report was not intended to be made public.”