The Big Gamble

The Mashpee Wampanoag and their leader Cedric Cromwell are in a race against time to open a casino in Massachusetts but the question isn't just whether the Mashpees will beat the clock it's whether the tribe will survive the ordeal.

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |
Illustration by Justin Metz

Illustration by Justin Metz

It’s a bright, cloudless mid-September day on Cape Cod. A generation ago, this is the type of day that, if the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe were holding a council meeting and it turned out the herring were running, someone might have sprinted by with the news, sending everyone scurrying down to the water. But there’s no time for that now: The Mashpee have business to attend to. So the tribal leaders and a handful of their supporters are crammed inside a conference room in a trailer that’s been parked alongside their too-small office building in the town of Mashpee.

The occasion for today’s gathering is a ceremony to announce the closing of a $12.7 million loan that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given the tribe to build a 40,000-square-foot community center. The new building will have a lounge for elders, a hangout for kids, much-needed office space (goodbye, trailer), and spots for events and social get-togethers. Cedric Cromwell, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal council chairman, stands at the head of the room, smiling like he’s just won the lottery as he talks about “a renaissance time” for his people. It’s been four years since the tribe was officially recognized by the U.S. government, and in that time alone the Mashpee Wampanoags have been to hell and back. But now, things are finally looking up.

With bags under his eyes, Cromwell looks at once exhausted and buoyed. He’s been getting only three or four hours of sleep a night, he says later, and has trouble keeping track of all the various government and bank officials assembled before him. One name he has no problem with, though, is Mark Forest, the executive director of the Delahunt Group, a lobbying firm run by retired Congressman Bill Delahunt, whose district included the Cape. The tribe hired Delahunt in March, and, according to state records, paid his firm $40,000 between then and June (more recent records aren’t available). Midway through Cromwell’s presentation, Delahunt himself strolls in, looking every bit the retired congressman in khakis and a billowy yellow button-down shirt.

After Cromwell finishes his speech, Delahunt walks up to and embraces one of the tribe’s chiefs (these days, chief is a ceremonial position, usually reserved for elders). It’s a nice scene, but also a reminder of the tribal elders who are not at today’s celebration. Among the no-shows is Chief Earl Mills, who happens to believe that, Department of Agriculture loan or not, Cromwell is leading the tribe to ruin. The hard feelings aren’t really about the community center, of course — not any more than the presence of the big-money lobbyists. Like so much for the Mashpee lately, this is all about one thing: chasing a casino.

Just two days earlier, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a bill that would massively expand gambling in the state, allowing for three casinos and one slots parlor. The bill splits the state into three zones and designates one casino license for each. In two of the zones, the license will go to ordinary commercial bidders, but the proposed legislation stipulates that the license in the southeastern zone be reserved for a federally recognized Indian tribe — which basically means the Mashpee. The bill (which by press time had been sent to the desk of the governor, who has said he will sign it), arranges for the Mashpee to get the license provided they can do three very difficult things, all by July 31, 2012. They must buy the land they need for their casino; get the town where the land is to pass a local referendum authorizing gambling; and come to an agreement with Governor Deval Patrick regarding how much of the casino’s profits will go to the state. If the tribe fails to accomplish all of that by the deadline, the license will go up for bid like the other two.

That could leave the Mashpee not only out a casino, but also crushed by the debt they’ve taken on in its pursuit.

Which makes right now a very bad time for the tribe to be bitterly divided.

At a husky 6-foot-4 (at least), Cedric Cromwell, dressed in a navy pinstripe suit, is tough to miss as he works the crowd at a barbecue to celebrate the opening of  another new building — this one a satellite office in New Bedford. Stepping to a podium, Cromwell gushes with more talk of the Mashpee “renaissance time.” He introduces a group of a half-dozen people, who are seated around a traditional drum. When they start to play, he joins in, yipping and banging right along. As he wipes sweat from his brow with his suit jacket still on, he’s a striking blend of tradition and modernity.

That the event is in New Bedford is as much a testament to the tribe’s modern circumstance as anything. The majority of the Mashpee’s 2,600 enrolled members — those officially recognized by the tribe and allowed to vote in elections — still live clustered around their historical home base of Cape Cod, but that’s an expensive spot. As a result, a few hundred Mashpee also make their home in New Bedford, the old industrial city that sits across Buzzards Bay.

Even for those making a go of it on the Cape, times have been tough. According to the tribe, half of its members are unemployed and 50 percent live below the poverty line, with another 50 percent lacking a high school diploma. The median annual household income is $29,601 — less than half the state’s figure. Nearly 400 years after their ancestors greeted the Mayflower, the Mashpee are still very much waiting for their ship to come in.

The idea behind the casino is to provide jobs and generate the money that the tribal government needs for social services and preservation of the Mashpee heritage. Cromwell speaks dreamily about using casino profits to build housing and invest in education. The casino, in other words, means hope.

So far, though, the pursuit of gambling has brought only pain. That’s thanks in no small part to former tribal chairman Glenn Marshall. When Marshall took office in 2000, his principal task was gaining for the Mashpee what they had long desired: official recognition from the federal government and status as a sovereign nation. Despite its long history, the tribe had few dealings with the feds in its early days, and therefore had never been recognized. The 1970s saw a renewed push for sovereignty, but after 30 years of compiling what is believed to be the thickest application ever for federal recognition — 10,100 documents spread over 54,000 pages — their efforts had gone nowhere. Marshall, though, understood that to win in Washington, you had to play the Washington game. In 2001 he filed suit against the government for recognition. He also filled the tribal coffers with cash from investors who saw the potential for a casino. In 2003 he hired lobbyist Jack Abramoff to push the Mashpee agenda, and Marshall and other tribe members started making political donations with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Marshall proved to be controversial at home. He governed with a paranoid style, shunning members who disagreed with him and removing them from the official rolls. Critics also charged that he stopped letting new members into the tribe to avoid diluting his voter base. (Tribal chairman is an elected position.) And then there was his association with Abramoff, who would go on to serve jail time for fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion. (Nothing in his Mashpee dealings was found to be untoward.) Marshall did get results, though. In 2007 the United States government finally recognized the Mashpee Wampanoag as an official tribe.

But while the Mashpee were rejoicing, the ruling set off alarm bells in the Massachusetts State House. Now that it was an official tribe, the Mashpee suddenly had the the same rights under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) that other tribes had used to open mammoth casinos like Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Expanded gambling could be headed for Massachusetts, and there wasn’t much the state could do about it.

Passed in 1988, IGRA was designed to regulate the burgeoning Indian gaming industry by creating three classes of gambling. Class I involves small-time social gaming with minimal prizes, which tribes can offer with no oversight. Class II is for bingo parlors and bingo slots (a slot machine rigged to play bingo), which don’t need state approval and can operate tax free. Class III gaming, the real moneymaker — full-on slot machines, poker, craps — requires approval from the state.

At the time of their tribal recognition, the Mashpee didn’t actually have any reservation land. But Governor Deval Patrick anticipated that if they ever got it, the tribe would be able to open a Class II bingo slot parlor without paying any state taxes. Better, he reasoned, to work with the Mashpee on a deal that would bring in more money for them while also making sure the state got its share of the revenues. In other words, work something out where the tribe could open a Class III casino. (Patrick has also generally eyed gaming as a revenue generator.) So in 2007 the governor introduced legislation to authorize three resort casinos in Massachusetts, with a clause stating that the Indians would receive preference in the bidding process.

After that, though, things fell apart, for both the tribe and Patrick. On Beacon Hill, the anti-gambling speaker of the House, Sal DiMasi, crushed Patrick’s proposal. Meanwhile, in August 2007, reports surfaced that Glenn Marshall was a convicted rapist and had lied about his military service. Next came federal charges that Marshall had made illegal campaign contributions, filed false tax returns, fraudulently received Social Security disability benefits, and embezzled $380,000 from the tribe. Marshall pleaded guilty to all the charges in February 2009, and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

Marshall’s spectacular flameout left the Mashpees in chaos. Cedric Cromwell, who’d been a member of the tribal council for eight years, ran as a reform candidate to replace his old boss and bring stability. He was elected to a four-year term as chairman in 2009. The task before him was daunting: repair the tribe’s trust, clean up Marshall’s mess, and try to salvage the Mashpee casino bid. And then there were his own problems.

On May 7, a cool early-spring day on the Cape, a group of furious Mashpees gathered in a park near town hall to decry Cromwell and his administration. Media reports put attendance at about 50 people, but Chief Earl Mills insists it was closer to 100. Mills, along with former tribe vice chair David Pocknett and current tribal council member Carlton Hendricks, accused Cromwell of incompetence, irresponsible spending, and loading future generations of Mashpee with debt. They circulated a petition for an amendment to the Mashpee constitution that would require a tribal vote to approve all expenditures of more than $1.5 million. They also organized a recall movement.

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.

Cromwell claims to have experience dealing with numbers like these — he worked in investments at Fidelity for 10 years — but he hasn’t exactly helped himself with his personal financial situation. Earlier this year, he defaulted on a loan of more than $21,500 from the Household Finance Corporation. And when he was elected chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag in 2009, the local media reported that he owed more than $13,000 in back taxes and utility bills to the city of Attleboro, where he currently resides. He says the debts were the result of financial complications brought on by the passing of his father. Much of his bill has been paid down, but as of September, he still had $3,600 remaining on his tax tab. Asked about the back taxes in an interview, he appeared taken aback, and said he was on a payment plan. Within a week, his publicist called and implied that the taxes had been taken care of. Further review showed that was not the case: As of early November, Cromwell still owed Attleboro $1,732.14 in overdue taxes and an additional $4,262.57 for utilities. According to the city, Cromwell, who makes more than $100,000 per year from the tribe, had not paid a utility bill since July 2010. After Cromwell was asked about it again by Boston, a week later the utility bill was paid down to $622.42, though the tax balance stayed the same.

If nothing else, the unpaid bills are a reminder that, like his tribe, Cromwell is going through growing pains. Just a few years ago he was a regular Joe. Now he’s responsible for millions of dollars and thousands of people. Which is why he needs to find a place for his casino, fast.

The Mashpee have  been on the hunt for a casino location going all the way back to 2007, the first time Governor Patrick proposed a casino bill. Glenn Marshall struck a deal with the town of Middleborough back then to build the Mashpee resort there. The agreement called for the tribe to pay the town $250,000 per year in mitigation and planning costs. But upon taking office in 2009, Cromwell decided he didn’t like it. He says he can’t discuss the matter — Middleborough and the Mashpee are tied up in legal wrangling — but the speculation is that he was turned off by the cost of improving the town’s infrastructure.

In any case, Cromwell started snooping around Fall River. Middleborough officials claim he kept stringing them along even as he was scouting other locations, and when the Mashpee finally decided in May 2010 to shack up with Fall River instead, Middleborough officials claim they heard about it on the news. The $250,000 payments stopped and, not surprisingly, the bitterness remains: Middleborough selectman Allin Frawley says he plans to push his fellow selectmen to file a lawsuit the second the Mashpee strike a deal with some other place.

The Fall River deal fell apart in just five months, after a deed restriction on the proposed site of the casino and a lawsuit brought by a group of locals proved too much to overcome. So just months from the July 31 deadline, the tribe still doesn’t seem to have found a home for its casino. Cromwell will say only that he’s looking into sites across the area.

The problem is that there are only so many places in southeastern Massachusetts with the space for a casino and residents willing to accept one. It’s possible Fall River could come back into play — the town’s top economic development officer says he’s still very much in touch with the tribe — but several other potential locations seem to be out. The Mashpee had been in talks with Raynham Park owner George Carney to locate at his track, but those negotiations fell through in the fall. “I’m going to go in my own direction,” Carney says. “I’m not that crazy to get myself tied up with a lot of headaches that I don’t need.” There doesn’t seem to be much doing in Plymouth or Taunton, either, as development officers in those towns say they’ve heard nothing from the tribe. Outgoing New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang also said he’s had no recent formal contact with the Mashpee. Bridgewater was mentioned as a rumor in one report, but that was news to everyone in town hall. And considering that the tribe absolutely scorched its bridges in Middleborough, that’s no longer an option either.

On top of the land hunt and the possible Middleborough lawsuit, there will be other legal challenges. Rival developers — such as KG Urban Enterprises, which has drawn up detailed plans for a casino in New Bedford — are likely to sue once the casino bill becomes law, challenging the constitutionality of giving the Mashpee such preference. How those suits would affect the law and the tribe’s ability to move forward with their plans is anybody’s guess.

Considering the time it will take to charm and comfort local officials and then the voting populace, it’s in the tribe’s interest to find a piece of land as quickly as possible. According to Denis Hanks, executive director of the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce, a town like his would need at least six to eight months to pass the zoning and work through the issue. That gets awfully close to July 31.

And then there’s the matter of Genting, the tribe’s big-money backer, growing antsy. “I think they’ll put pressure on them to pick a spot,” says Clyde Barrow, a UMass Dartmouth gaming expert. Massachusetts is viewed as one of the last great untapped gaming markets in America, and the last thing Genting wants, after sinking as much as $17 million into the Mashpee, is to lose out on the state’s casino bonanza.

Assuming the Mashpee do acquire the land, there will be the matter of a compact with the state. Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods currently turn over 25 percent of their slot revenue to Connecticut, so that’s likely what the Mashpee will consider fair. (Cromwell declined to comment on the issue.) On the other hand, the Massachusetts casino bill calls for the non-Indian casinos operating in the state to pay a tax of 25 percent on all revenues. Closing the gap between those two figures will be no easy task.

Finally, the casino land must be “taken into trust” by the U.S. government to become an official reservation. The Mashpee can’t operate their casino until the federal government decides to grant them a reservation, according to state Senator Stanley Rosenberg, one of the primary lawmakers behind the bill. That could be a problem, thanks to a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case called Carcieri v. Salazar. The court decided that the federal government did not have the authority to designate reservations for any tribe federally recognized after 1934, due to a quirk of language in a law from that year.

So the Mashpees could have their casino built, the cards shuffled, and the bars stocked, but if there’s no land into trust — no federally recognized reservation — the doors can’t open. The Mashpee and state officials are confident that won’t be a problem: The Bureau of Indian Affairs has indicated that granting reservations to landless tribes is a high priority, and has shown a willingness to work around the Carcieri ruling, Rosenberg says. Cromwell, for his part, believes some solution could be negotiated into the tribe’s compact with Massachusetts. Even if the land-into-trust process has not been completed, he thinks he would still start construction on a casino, betting that everything would work out.

That’s a surprising level of confidence from someone who says, “I’m not a gambling man.” Casinos aren’t really Cromwell’s thing — actually, risk isn’t his thing. “When I walk across the street, I try to make sure that there are not too many cars,” he says. “I’m a business person and a leader of a tribal nation.” And the casino, as Cromwell and most of the tribe believe, is a good deal for the Mashpee.

The big question is whether Cromwell will be able to get his tribe solidly enough behind him so that he doesn’t have to worry about making political decisions related to a casino — just business ones. The question looms large, since the Mashpee will need to set up a corporate governance for their gaming enterprise, which would be entirely separate from their tribal government. They will also have to wrestle with how casino profits will be allocated. How much to social services? How much to their lenders? How much straight to individuals?

“You’re not going to be able to tell 100 percent of the people to line up and do this, it just doesn’t happen in America,” Cromwell says. “We have a strong circle of people and we’re all connected as being Mashpee Wampanoag, so that’s never going to change.”

As Barrow, the UMass Dartmouth expert, points out, division within a tribe can sometimes lead to problems in casino endeavors. Just look to the south. “In Foxwoods, tribal politics is the casino. It’s made it much more difficult to manage,” he says. “They’ve made political decisions instead of business decisions.” In the middle of an economic downturn, Foxwoods pledged to its Pequot tribe members that their per capita dividend payments would under no circumstance be cut. Angry creditors freaked out. “Financial markets went nuts,” Barrow says. The payments were soon eliminated anyway. Foxwoods also opened its new MGM Grand during the recession. “That was part of the policy of the tribe: build, build, build,” Barrow says. “It was really a political idea, not a business idea.” Mohegan Sun, on the other hand, has better separated politics from business. As a result, Barrow says, the Mohegans have weathered the recession more cleanly than their neighbors.

That all these questions are even on the table is more than a little astounding to longtime tribe members, who can recall the days — and they weren’t that long ago — when maintaining fishing and hunting rights were the tribe’s main concern. Paula Peters is as deeply entwined in the tribe’s history as anyone around: Her father was the original tribal chair, and he served, with a few gaps, from 1972 to 1999. She once served on the tribal council herself, and in 2005 she ran unsuccessfully against Glenn Marshall. She’s also married to Mark Harding, the current tribe treasurer, and counts herself as a supporter of Cromwell. According to her, everything in the tribe started to change in the bitter Marshall years. “I’ve been a part of it since I was 12 years old,” she says. “I can recall that, politically, people would disagree, but it didn’t split families, it didn’t split the town, it didn’t split the tribe. And now, that’s the difference.”

But it wasn’t just Marshall that was the problem: It was the casino. The prospect of those bright, glitzy lights and a steady cash flow has done more than any one person could to change the tribe. “Absolutely, it’s the money!” Peters says. She originally opposed the idea of a casino, but has since come to grips with it being the will of the majority of the tribe. “When people asked me, ‘Why did you vote against it?’ I would say, ‘It’s gonna be ugly, it’s gonna bring out the worst in us.’ And there it is.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/11/big-gamble-will-mashpee-wampanoag-survive-casinos/