Pequots Find That Easy Money Is Hard To Give Up
September 8, 2009
But you wouldn't know it from the 800 or so members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, who can't give up the gambling money and their regular "per capita" cash payments to tribal members paid for by all those slots and table games.
They even plan to use borrowed money to keep the lucre flowing.
If there's a lesson in how the Pequots got here, it starts with the "per cap" that began shortly after the casino opened in 1992. It's the opposite of what Congress intended with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, in which gambling was intended to be an engine for economic development — not welfare for tribal members.
For years Mashantuckets have received regular six-figure paychecks for doing little more than being a tribal member.
Certainly, the fact that gamblers don't want to throw as much money away during a recession is a big part of the reason why the Mashantucket Pequots are struggling to pay off the $2.3 billion debt they owe on the world's largest casino complex.
Still, this cash cow is far from dead. In June, Foxwoods patrons poured just under $1 million per hour into the mega-casino's 8,000 or so slot machines. But with fierce competition on the horizon in neighboring states, even when the economy revives, it all might never again be like it was.
What I learned during five years writing about gambling is that it's always about more — more slots, bigger casinos, taller hotels and more money for investors. Throughout their adventure as Casino Indians, the solution for the Pequots has always been more gambling to keep their free money flowing.
The Vegas reply to newly flush Connecticut tribes — thanks to a state compact that allows this and greedy investors willing to bankroll it — has always been more slots and to hell with planning for a future beyond gambling games.
It's no surprise that tribal Chairman Michael Thomas, now on forced "administrative leave" and locked out of his office, adamantly stood by the per capita payments in an e-mail obtained by Brian Hallenbeck, who has aggressively followed the story for The New London Day.
The money is always too good to give up. The next roll of the dice will pay off. It's an old story.
A few years ago I spent a couple mornings in the Norwich courthouse, looking at financial affidavits in the case files of Mashantucket tribal members getting divorced. There were dozens of Mashantucket cases detailing, precisely, just how generous the tribe was.
The seemingly large number of divorces was revealing. The fantastic incomes more so.
I found one tribal member taking home a $4,804 weekly paycheck and dozens of other cases in which Mashantuckets "earned" anywhere from high five figures to six-figure per capita incomes. So much for paying your bills before buying the big car.
It's no coincidence that the neighboring Mohegans' per capita is about $28,000 annually and that their debt is half of what the Mashantuckets owe.
Only about a third of casino tribes engage in the controversial practice of per capita payments to tribal members. I have visited casino reservations where tribes choose instead to pay off their debts and build non-gambling industries, tribal health clinics, roads and schools.
"It's created a lack of ambition to do anything more," said Tim Giago, an outspoken Oglala Lakota journalist on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and a fierce critic of Connecticut's Indian tribes. "It's created a lack of ambition to do anything more."
"My main point was that the golden goose isn't going to keep laying these eggs. There is going to come a time when people are backing off gaming. What is happening right now with the Mashantuckets could be the forerunner of what will happen in a lot of areas of the United States."
In an ironic twist to their remarkable story of revival, the Mashantucket Pequots now have an addiction of their own. It's not the gambling, but the cash.
EDITORIAL FOOTNOTE: Could this also be happening to members of the Mohegan Tribe? Will the Mohegan Tribe borrow money, to give money to its tribal members? Has the Mohegan Tribe borrowed money to give money to Mohegan Tribal members? will this happen to the Mohegan Tribe? What do you think?