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14 September 2010

Integrity of a Tribal Gaming Agent

Tribes have been conducting gaming operations as long as anyone can remember. It was this history of gaming that ultimately convinced the Federal Government and the Courts to authorize the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) that allows federally recognized Native American Tribes the right to open and operate casinos on trust land.

In the early 1990’s casinos began springing up across the country, once a Tribe negotiated a Compact with the State in which they reside to establish regulatory controls and agencies responsible for enforcing those controls.

As gaming expanded so did the controls and responsibilities of the agencies that provided oversight for the gaming operations. There are many debates on how much control these agencies should have or even if they should exist as oversight agencies. Tribal casinos are regulated by federal, state and tribal agencies, making them the most regulated casinos in the world. Overkill? Probably, but in the beginning the federal government was very concerned organized crime would infiltrate these casinos and siphon millions of dollars from tribes that are used to pay for governmental services to their tribal populations.

Almost all tribal casinos will report some conflict or adversarial relationship with their Tribal Gaming Commissions. There have been instances where the Tribal Gaming Commissions and Agents have sued the Tribe over control of the casino, even though the Tribe employs the agents that work for their Commissions. It comes down to interpretations over who has the control of the casino, the separation between the Commission and the Tribe and even the egos and lust for power the Tribal Gaming Agents (TGA) develop.

On at least one occasion a Tribal Gaming Director (TGD) couldn’t separate the power, ego and lust for control he developed in his prior career as a city police officer. Through the years he worked at this particular casino there were many observations of his vindictive behavior towards employees of the casino. Many people were afraid to not do what he said for fear of retaliation, even though he didn’t have the authority to tell operation employees what to do.

Due to the heavy regulatory requirements and the desire to keep operations of the casino and the regulation of the casino separate, the businesses were organized as two separate entities. Operations was responsible for running the business and generating income, while Regulatory was responsible for making sure Operations followed the rules in their mission to generate income.

This TGD, however, fancied himself as an operator of the casino and often had many ideas on how to run the casino better. In an effort to maintain quality relations with the Regulatory body, the Executive Director of Operations (CEO equivalent) created an Executive Board that included the TGD. This Board was in charge of high level policy development, major projects, finance control and marketing direction. The Board also helped facilitate communication between the two independent bodies of the casino and its existence improved the coordination during projects that required TGA input and approval.

It also fueled the TGD’s lust for becoming the Executive Director of the company. During these years the relationship was the best of any tribal casino and the model for other properties who wanted to improve the relationship between Operations and Regulatory.

But reports of the TGD’s vindictive behavior grew and began to tarnish his credibility. It altered the behavior of the Executive Board who now was concerned about becoming the target of his wrath if his ideas were not given adequate consideration.

This led to conducting meetings without the TGD, but that itself triggered the vindictive behavior the Board was trying to avoid.

Then an analysis by the General Manager was about to set into motion an uncontrollable series of events that would change the face of the business forever.

The biggest political witch hunt and most complex conspiracy the Tribe has ever mounted was about to begin. Led by the political backing of the Tribes Chairman, the actual hunt had the TGD as its General.

Starting in the fall of 2005, the casinos GM noticed an aberration developing in a trend of the table game hold percentage. The GM regularly performed analysis on the table games and other financial aspects of the business. The hold percentage is the result of two factors, the ‘drop’ and the house’s ‘win’ on any particular table. The ‘drop’ is the amount of money a customer pulls out of his/her wallet and places on the table in exchange for chips. That money then goes down a ‘drop box’ and is later taken off the tables, placed on a cart and rolled into the back hallway and eventually into soft count, the room where all the casino’s money is counted.

After the customer plays for his/her duration of stay, he/she will take their remaining chips to the cage and be paid in cash. Generally, the amount is less than the amount that they ‘dropped’ on the tables. The difference in those amounts is the house’s ‘win’. If you divide the ‘win’ by the ‘drop’ you end up with the ‘hold’ percentage.

So getting back to the aberration in the hold percentage, if the ‘win’ stays constant, but the ‘drop’ rises, the ‘hold’ percentage will drop. And if the ‘drop’ falls, the ‘hold’ percentage will rise. Since the ‘win’ is controlled in the cage and on the tables it can’t be altered. The tables have a starting chip count and an ending chip count. In simple terms, the difference will be what the house won or what the customer won depending if the ending count is higher or lower than the starting count. That starting and ending inventory is coordinated in the cage with the amount of chips that a customer cashes in and when reconciled the result is the house’s win or loss.

So, hypothetically, if someone were taking money out of the drop boxes prior to the money being counted, the ‘hold’ percentage would rise.

In fact, the hold percentage was showing abnormally high readings for a number of periods and because no one paid attention to it prior to this, the GM discovered that it had been that way for a number of years. The ‘normal’ hold percentage in this geographical region was around 24%. In Vegas and New Jersey those numbers are lower.

At this property the number had been running consistently between 27% and 29%. At this property, during this time, the drop box carts were wheeled into a back hallway and left there until such time they were moved into the soft count area.

The soft count door required two keys, one was held by security and the other by the TGA’s.

The TGA’s also controlled surveillance. The GM was granted access to the property’s camera via a terminal connected to his computer. The TGD authorized the GM to view every camera in the business, except the one camera that had a view of the drop box cart while it was in the back hallway.

It was possible that someone in the TGA department could systematically remove several thousand dollars from the drop boxes while it was in this back hallway on every shift and it would go unnoticed. Except, a red flag would pop up and reveal itself in the hold percentage. It is conceivable that the hold percentage could pop up to 29% and then come back down to normal ranges. But it becomes a red flag when the hold percentage stays up at those levels for an extended period of time, as it did at this property.

The GM brought this to the attention of the Tribe at a regularly scheduled Business Committee meeting. Even after several warnings, the Business Committee took no action. The Business Committee was the Tribes oversight committee for Operations and reported directly to the Tribes governing body.

Casino management was conducting a regular year end clean up of unnecessary expenses, in this particular year it included deactivating unused cell phones in early January. The TGD announced in late January that he was going to do a routine audit. The audit was anything but routine.

Later, the timing of the announcement of the audit and the deactivation of the phones would be a point of debate.

The audit began with cell phone use, but as nothing could be found it quickly expanded to credit cards, tools, computers, payroll and virtually everything in the casino that the GM, the Executive Director of Operations, the Controller and the Facilities Manager had some oversight. The audit became an investigation of the top management officials and in this case a related manager.

Casino management and employees were cooperative and gave the Tribal Gaming Agents everything they asked for, this is documented in e-mails sent to management from the Gaming Agents.

After three months of investigating and coming up empty handed, the TGD decided to pull in the Feds. But how could he do this without hanging himself?

In a bold move, the TGD tells the Tribe he is not getting all the information he needs to wrap up his investigation. Later, in June, when the TGD turns in his findings to the Tribes governing body, the Senate, there is nothing in the report that he didn’t already know in February.

But he presses on and delays the conclusion of his investigation. By this time he has the auditor, who is conducting the Casino’s annual audit, unknowingly in on the scheme. The auditor will not release the audit until the investigation is complete.

Interestingly enough, the auditor conducting the annual audit in this particular year was hired by the TGD. It is the first year that it is done this way. In all prior years the auditor was hired by casino management.

The TGD delays the investigation, the audit is not ready by the April deadline and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) issues a violation. A short time later the TGD asks the NIGC to come in and assist with the investigation. When asked later by the Tribe, the TGD denies asking the NIGC to come in, but NIGC investigators admitted being asked by the TGD to assist.

The TGD continued to report that he was not getting the information he requested. This is contradicted by emails sent to Operations by the TGA’s, but it served to divide the Tribal council’s loyalty to Casino management.

The Chairman of the Tribe had for 10 years been trying to gain control of the Casino and its resources, but needed to remove its top management to accomplish his goal. This was not as straight forward as it would seem for two reasons: 1) casino management were Tribal members and it has always been the goal and desire of the Tribe to have Tribal members in high level jobs; and 2) they were honest and had turned the casino around from losing $1 million dollars a year to making over $11 million dollars a year.

The Chairman saw this as his opportunity to gain control of the casino and encouraged the TGD to move forward while showing sympathy and support by attempting to save casino management, get the investigation behind them and move on.

The TGD’s delay of the investigation resulted in the annual audit being delayed and missing the deadline for submission to NIGC. This failure to submit the audit and the invitation by the TGD for NIGC’s assistance elevated the investigation.

Months of interviews and time consuming submission of materials followed. During this time the TGD turned every molehill he could find into a mountain. For example,

The casinos slot manager discovered an accounting error involving one of the casinos slot vendors. During one of the machine installs, TGA failed to accurately count all the machines that were delivered. This resulted in an overpayment to the vendor. Upon further investigation by casino management and the vendor, a refund check from the vendor was issued to the casino for the machines not delivered.

The TGD jumped on this and began accusing the slot manager of embezzlement, even though the vendor admitted fault and reimbursed the casino. This resulted in the slot manager being charged with a crime by the Tribal Gaming Commission.

On one occasion slot personnel with TGA assistance needed to access a slot player terminal, it was discovered that one of the keys that opens the machine was missing. There is absolutely nothing in this terminal of value, yet it led to a several month investigation of the slot manager. The morning of the day the slot manager was to attend a hearing of the Gaming Commission on the issue, the manager discovered the key on her desk when she entered her office. She requested to see tapes of the cameras that were outside her office to determine who had been in her office the night before. The TGD indicated that no tapes existed. It is surveillance policy and a Compact requirement to keep tapes of every camera on file for seven days. It is believed that one of the TGA’s put the key on her desk and the TGD was protecting him. The TGA’s had the key the whole time during the investigation and were using the issue to implicate the slot manager in a crime.

The casinos controller had a company laptop stolen from her home during a New Year’s Eve burglary. Because the casino’s deductible is too high to turn the theft in on the company’s insurance policy, the controller included it in on her policy along with the other articles that were taken so the company laptop could be replaced. Again the TGD made this an issue of theft and charged the controller with a crime. The new laptop was delivered directly to the casino, the Controller never came into contact with it at any time. Even so, the TGD had a forensic expert scour the new laptop for evidence the Controller was using it for personal use. His vindictive rage was so blinding that it never occurred to him that no one had yet used that computer.

The licensing agent, an employee of the TGD and close friend, was overheard talking to the TGD on the phone. He was heard saying “I’ll bet you want to blow her brains out”. At the same time the GM was at a meeting that was being held with the Tribal Council, casino management and the TGD. The topic was the TGA investigation. The TGD was seen talking on his cell phone during a break at the same time the licensing agent was overheard. They were talking about the casinos Controller.

Even though the TGD was responsible for delaying the investigation and causing the submission of the audit to be late, he blamed it on casino management and charged them with impeding the investigation.

Top management, the GM, Executive Director and Controller along with the slot manager were charged with allowing their spouses to use their company issued phones. Currently, that is a common practice and the new GM even pays for his spouse’s phone with the casinos credit card.

All the aforementioned were released from their duties because of the TGD’s actions. They also lost their licenses to work in the gaming industry. Later, the TGD was also released and began bouncing around from casino to casino. After his departure, investigators found both sets of keys that opened the soft count room in his desk. Nobody was supposed to have both sets of keys at the same time and all keys were supposed to be locked in a key box. Video was captured showing the TGD and on a separate occasion the Licensing Agent leaving the casino back hallway moments after coming to work in the morning with brown bags, the size being consistent with stacks of money.

The TGD initiated and conducted this investigation in retaliation of thinking he was being accused of stealing money from the drop boxes. Circumstantial evidence would indicate that there were serious holes in the controls of the table game drop boxes that could allow theft to occur. Although no allegations were made or hard evidence found that theft was occurring, subsequent actions taken by the TGD would indicate he had a need to tie up loose ends.

The victims of the investigation and in the months to follow several other management employees lost their jobs and no longer work in the casino industry.

The TGD has bounced around several casinos but is still in the industry working as a Gaming Director for a Tribe. No investigation of theft or the possibility of theft was ever conducted.

All of the over 300 employees’ lives were affected by this change. Many now work in fear of losing their jobs due to the management style of the new GM who rules by fear. Many have asked for former management to return.

The Chairman of the Tribe went on to hire a new GM who was pushed through the approval system without a background check.

The performance of the casino has deteriorated under the new GM with the profit dropping by over a million dollars for each of the first three years of his tenure.

One of the first things he did was to eliminate or materially alter the internal controls of the operation.

Since then there have been numerous complaints of wrongdoing and red flags that indicate the probability of fraud and theft at the casino, it has grown out of control.

Some highlights:

  • The TGA’s conducted an audit of the credit card use in the second year of his employment. They found almost $200,000 of charges that had no receipts. The GM was allowed to hand write receipts and turn them in as proof of payment
  • GM bought his wife a laptop computer through the company in order to get the company discount and evade taxes
  • An all-you-can eat lobster dinner was held and 1000 lobster tails purchased, a subsequent audit could only account for 566 lobster tails.
  • Charges on the company credit card for a hotel in the same town he lives
  • GM rented a car to attend a one day conference and kept the car for an entire week, paid for by the casino
  • Took his mistress (also works at casino) to Canada for vacation. On a whim he purchased tickets to the Olympics in Vancouver and distributed them to friends at the casino. Cost over $8,500. Of course he and his mistress attended several days of the Olympics free of charge, they also received spending cash from the casino
  • Created a job for his mistress and recently gave her a raise to $70,000/year. She works part time and rarely is seen at casino
  • Promotions are held without any advertising, patrons don’t even know the promotion is going on; GM authorizes accelerated point accumulation in the player tracking system…and doesn’t tell anyone about it, including the players. Points allow players to purchase slot tickets without hard cash.
  • GM holds expensive promotions without doing proper analysis of its chances for success, often losing tens of thousands of dollars.
  • GM’s player development program caused the marketing budget to run $1.7 million dollars over budget, nearly doubling the budget itself
  • TGA investigators suspect the GM’s hiring of close friends who own marketing companies to be a conduit for kickbacks for unneeded or overpriced services
  • TGA’s have found evidence of receiving travel advances for trips to conferences even though expenses during the trip are paid for with the company credit card
  • GM goes to conferences and never attends meetings or seminars, instead plays golf on the casinos dime the entire trip
  • Tribal Chairman, Gaming Commissioners and Business Committee Chairman receive special treatment from the GM including:
    • Free golfing at local courses
    • Free golfing during conference trips
    • Tickets to attend U.S. Open golf championship
    • Free lunches and dinners for self and family, including rides to restaurants in casinos luxury car
    • Exclusive rights to sell shellfish and salmon to casino from family fishing business at prices higher than market
  • Business Committee Chairman recently paid off his 30 year mortgage…only 12 years into his contract

TGA investigations have revealed numerous problems that can be documented, but the Chairman of the Tribe is furiously defending the GM and even squashed a suspension the Gaming Commission was trying to give him.

The GM has serious problems with the IRS. He hasn’t paid them taxes for over 10 years and stop making payments on an agreement to repay them. He’s filed bankruptcy twice and has indicated he is about to file again. He is the highest paid employee at the Tribe, but he can’t afford to pay his taxes. When questioned about his money problems he told investigators that his wife handles his finances, then when asked about 30 payroll advances he received he said he doesn’t trust his wife with his money.

Employees that followed him to this property from his former property are beginning to leave their employment because they don’t believe in his ethical standards and methods of operating the casino.

The Tribal Chairman now has control of the casino and its finances and is doing everything in his power to maintain that control. Recently, the Gaming Commission concluded an investigation of the General Manager that revealed extreme motive to defraud the casino. There is substantial evidence that this is happening, but the Chairman maintains that the GM is doing a good job. The GM has reneged on agreements with the Internal Revenue Service, but the Chairman continues to reprimand staff and attorney’s on staff to back off their verbal characterizations of wrongdoing by the GM.

Speculation on what the Chairman has to gain by keeping the GM on staff is increasing. The Chairman himself has said, “if we knew everything we know about the [GM] when we hired him, we wouldn’t have hired him”. Yet the opportunity to correct that oversight has passed and it was the Chairman who squashed it.

The casino is operating at a level that can be considered ‘auto pilot’. It will generate its current level of profit with no one in charge. It takes a good GM to squeeze the few extra million it’s capable of out of it.

There are only a couple of self serving winners in this saga. The community and the casino that these Tribal leaders were elected to serve are the big losers.

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