Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

July 20, 2012

Casino closure could have impact

TAHLEQUAH — The fate of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma casino will be determined in a little more than a week, and some members are worried closure of the gaming facility could have a serious economic impact.

In June, the UKB and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt signed an agreement requiring the tribe to pay $2 million in damages and secure federal trust status for land on which the casino is located. The UKB has until July 30 to comply, or it must cease gaming operations.

Last May, Pruitt expressed concern to Bureau of Indian Affairs Secretary Ken Salazar and the National Indian Gaming Commission about the length of time involved in determining legality and trust status of the casino.

According to sources within the tribe’s administration, the UKB Casino employs about 150 people, and the overall economic impact – funding from both federal entities and the casino – is estimated at $140 million annually.

Pruitt’s information indicates the casino generates about $13 million annually, and under gaming compacts, a portion of that money should be turned over to the state to help fund education.

On Thursday, Ken Bellmard, the tribe’s attorney general indicated the prospects of gaining trust status looks promising.

“Let me qualify it this way: Obviously, when you’re talking about settlements and documentation with the federal government, there are a lot of people who are not on our side of the rope who would like to have that information,” said Bellmard. “We have every indication the land will be placed into trust within the deadline.”

UKB Treasurer Ella Mae Worley is uneasy about how tribal funds are being handled. Last year, the UKB administration paid out tens of thousands of bonuses to its elected officials. Worley returned her own bonus, as did UKB Tribal Councilors Barry Dotson and Betty Holcomb.

“I had been completely locked out of the accounting system, until I fought for [access],” said Worley. “When I gained limited access, I found some expenditures I thought were inappropriate and sent a letter to the chief, and only the chief, outlining those concerns.”

Worley is entitled to access under the UKB Constitution, which says the treasurer, an elected post, “shall be the custodian of all funds in possession of the council from any source.”

In the November 2011 meeting, Worley proposed an independent audit be conducted. The motion passed, only to be rescinded in December. The tribe finalized its 2010 audit earlier in the year from Standfield and O’Dell, with Craig Legener endorsing the project with flying colors.

Wickliffe said given this information, a second, independent audit wasn’t necessary, and that there would be no change in the outcome if one were conducted.

The media, including the Daily Press, were ejected from the November meeting, since the UKB, a sovereign tribe, has no open meeting act. At the time, no open record act existed, making media inquiries virtually impossible.

“There is now an open meetings and open records act,” said Bellmard. “The difference is that it covers tribal citizens only. The open records act differs greatly from that of the state of Oklahoma’s.”

Bellmard also said Worley was provided information included in the audited financial reports.

“We have an auditor come in every year who makes a presentation, and all [financial information] is included in those reports,” said Bellmard. “I have been at meetings when the auditors have handed her the information. She had access to the accounting system until a question of exposure that violates tribal policy came up. There’s a certain level of confidentiality she’s expected to keep; she took an oath of office. We have a very modern, up-to-date tribal disclosure policy and a records act the council has passed.”

Bellmard was traveling Thursday, but said he would provide the Daily Press with the new policy as soon as possible.

Worley said she believes the Keetoowah people have a right to know how tribal funds are being spent.

“This is not about me; it’s about our people,” said Worley. “I have not been able to fulfill my duties as treasurer, which the people elected me to do.”

The Daily Press has also received reports that some UKB citizens, worried about the future of the casino, have been investigating employment or benefits with the Cherokee Nation.

CN Executive Director of Communication Jim Gray said he is unaware of a spike in activity at the complex.

“I’ve not seen any evidence of that,” said Gray. “Which is not to say people aren’t researching their options in light of the situation, but I have no knowledge of an influx of inquiries.”

Bellmard pointed out the UKB does not allow dual citizenship.

“You’re either Keetoowah, or you’re not,” said Bellmard. “As far as employment is concerned, it’s not something I deal with. But if being a citizen of the [Cherokee Nation] is required for employment, then [a person would have to renounce citizenship in the UKB].”

In addition to internal struggles, the UKB is also facing a battle with the Cherokee Nation if it gains trust status July 30. Under the Cherokee Nation Constitution, elected officials and the tribe’s administration are bound by law to fight against any other tribe attempting top place land into trust within its 14-county jurisdiction.

CN Attorney General Todd Hembree has indicated if UKB land is placed into trust  July 30, the Cherokee Nation is prepared to file motions July 31.

Bellmard said this adds to the tension, which prevents people from seeing the positive side of the issue.

 “The tension between all the legal stuff and trying to get people to understand that things are looking up [is difficult],” said Bellmard. “The problem, quite frankly, within our area, is you have a competing tribe who seems to go out of [its] way to keep us from benefiting from our federal recognition.”

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