The Big Gamble

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

Neither of those efforts has gone anywhere, but the vitriol reflects how the casino issue has set the entire tribe on edge. Once the Mashpee appeared destined for a gambling windfall — complete with the possibility of dividends paid to members — people began crawling out of the woodwork, suddenly discovering some long-lost connection to the tribe. Just down the road, after all, Mashantucket Pequot tribe members received more than $100,000 annually during the good years at Foxwoods. “When we got our preliminary decision for federal recognition, oh my God, every day, it was hundreds of phone calls,” says Patricia Oakley, a former tribe genealogist.

Genealogy is a contentious issue for the Mashpees. For many of his critics, Cromwell’s problems started long before he came to power — at birth, actually. The Mashpee chairman grew up in Dorchester, not Mashpee, which to his detractors makes him a Johnny-come-lately who showed up only when it started looking like there was casino money on the horizon. “It’s tough to know how we live around here,” Hendricks says. “Especially if you’re not from here.”

Cromwell might have grown up in the city, but to be fair, he spent his weekends in Mashpee alongside his mom, who served as the tribal secretary for more than 30 years. He was enough a part of the tribe that old newsletters made mention of his accomplishments, and even Pocknett has acknowledged teaching Cromwell an Indian heritage course when he was a kid.

So that criticism may be a reach. But the dissidents’ complaints go far beyond issues of identity. The tribe is currently being funded largely by its casino development partner, a gaming giant from Malaysia called Genting, which also backed Foxwoods. As a policy, the Mashpee refuse to comment on their internal finances, but according to documents obtained for this story, of the roughly $5 million in revenue the tribe took in during the first seven months of 2011, more than half of it, $2.87 million, came as loans from the investors. Most of the rest was from grants.

The documents also show that the Mashpee debt ceiling is set at $17 million. According to council member Hendricks, the tribe is approaching the ceiling and is borrowing at a steep 15 percent rate, with another 1.25 percent tacked on for fees. And all of the money it owes to Genting will have to be paid back, Cromwell acknowledges, regardless of whether the tribe is able to open a casino. “We’re all responsible for the loan,” Hendricks says. “All tribal members, my kids are responsible for the loan.” In other words, in addition to becoming a race against time, the push for a casino has become a very, very big bet.

Much of that Genting money is being spent on the lawyers, lobbyists, architects, and other professionals needed to make a casino happen. But Pocknett, Hendricks, and Mills are upset about some of the other expenditures. An alleged $2,500 business lunch with the Malaysians became the talk of the tribe, and is held up as a symbol of Cromwell’s supposed limos-and-caviar attitude.

“You’re going to have people that are negative about this administration,” says Cromwell, who refuses to comment on any expenditures. “I think with our tribe, we’re in an amazing place where we’re growing. Not everyone in our tribe has been exposed to numbers like these. As the head of state, I meet with people on a regular basis. I have business lunches, I invite people out. We’re not playing, we’re talking about building relationships on business and it costs money.”

The critics also point to a $30,000 raise they say tribal vice chairman Aaron Tobey — Cromwell’s right-hand man — was given by the tribal council. Seven of the 11 council members are paid salaries; Cromwell critics like Hendricks are notably among the unpaid. Asked about that disparity, Cromwell smiles tightly and explains that some tribal members are assigned extra jobs and responsibilities that come with money. He concedes that he assigns those jobs.