Advertising reports made with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office have revealed the Northern Arapaho Tribe as the only funder behind the Wyoming Public Policy Center, an advocacy group that popped up at the end of 2018 to lobby against the expansion of gambling in the state.
The filing also lists Northern Arapaho Business Council co-chairman Al Addison as the group’s primary “association representative.”
The filings reveal the tribe’s casino has donated $80,500 to the group since the end of 2018. Lobbyists for the group reported $61,000 in expenditures.
Four members of the NABC have denied knowing about the group after filing was made.
A Monday statement from the NABC stated that “Chairman Lee Spoonhunter and council members Kimberly Harjo, Stephen Fast Hose, and Clarinda C. Thunder, had no prior knowledge of the WPPC and any purported use of tribal monies in its funding.”
According to the statement, the lobbying campaign was organized by the tribe’s long-time lobbyist, Mark Howell.
“We just recently learned of our now-former lobbyist Mark Howell’s connection to the group when he provided us a memo informing us for the first time that he had established the organization without business council authorization,” the NABC stated. “Upon learning of this, the council took immediate action to terminate Mr. Howell’s contract with the tribe. We are currently conducting an internal review to determine the extent of the transgressions of Mr. Howell and anyone else who may have been involved.”
The statement indicates that the tribe has alerted the National Indian Gaming Commission about the incident and “will fully cooperate with all regulators and proper authorities.”
Keith Harper, an attorney with Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Townsend who’s representing the tribe, also told the Boomerang in an email Monday evening that the Boomerang’s characterization of the filing was “inaccurate.”
“The NAT was not behind the entity,” Harper wrote.
Howell told the Boomerang that the tribal members’ pleas of ignorance are false. He said he’s briefed NABC members, both individually and as a group, numerous times throughout the development and enactment of the lobbying campaign.
Howell said that NABC members consistently showed enthusiasm and he has evidence that he intends to provide which he said will prove that assertion.
“Both the former members of the Northern Arapaho Business Council and Keith Harper are lying and it’s provable,” Howell told the Boomerang late Monday night. “They can lie to reporters, but they can’t lie to FBI or the Indian Gaming Commission because that’s a crime. I too will cooperate with any federal investigation on this matter.”
Samuel Dresser and Addison, the two council members who haven’t pleaded ignorance on the matter, also said the other four council-members were wrong in denying their involvement.
“Chairman Spoonhunter was especially forceful in his instruction to Mr. Howell to oppose legislation legalizing Vegas style slot machines off reservation,” the two council members said. “Mr. Howell was instructed by Chairman Spoonhunter and the other members of the council to work through the casino to donate funds to the WPPC and to take actions to protect the casino.”
The two council-members said the business council first approved “the plan” in October before being updated on its activity by Howell during a council retreat in December.
The two council members said that the NABC “reauthorized Mr. Howell to continue the activities on behalf of the tribe” after he met with the council in April and told them that “the Legislature would likely take up the issue of slot machine legalization in the interim session of the Legislature.”
The two men also asserted that NABC’s 4-2 vote to fire Howell was improper since the lobbyist was hired by a vote of the tribe’s general council.
With $36 million in total gambling revenues in 2018, the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s three casinos, led by the Wind River Hotel & Casino outside Riverton, have become the tribe’s chief economic engine in the last decade.
The Northern Arapaho remain the only tribe in the U.S. to operate a gambling operation without a statewide gaming compact, which shares some revenues with the state.
Since the lobbying group was created, the Wyoming Public Policy Center has focused on killing legislation that would create off-reservation competition to the Wind River Hotel & Casino.
During the 2019 legislative session and subsequent interim discussions, the lobbying group had successfully hidden its backers until Monday.
The group has mostly ignored the efforts of legislators and reporters to reveal the identity of the group that’s bought thousands of dollars worth of Facebook ads in the past seven months.
In January, a spokesman for the group did respond to an email from the Laramie Boomerang, saying that the “organization was created by private citizens to maintain a watchful eye on Cheyenne in order to oppose any expansion of the size and scope of government.”
However, the new filings reveal that the organization has been propelled by its government-run gambling operation that’s been masquerading as a libertarian advocacy group interested only in small government. The group also created advertisements that include messages such as “gambling destroys families.”
The tribe’s slot machines provide about 85% of its casino revenue.
During the 2019 legislative session, the Wyoming Public Policy Center largely focused on getting a bill killed that would have legalized a type of slot machine, called “video skill games.”
Video skill games had become popular around the state before former Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael issued an opinion stating that video skill games are illegal slot machines, re-establishing a monopoly for Wyoming’s two tribes.
“Those who play them are engaged in gambling, which is a crime in Wyoming, and those who provide the games are engaged in professional gambling, which is also a crime in Wyoming,” Michael said in a December statement.
After that opinion was released, the Laramie Police Department said that businesses in Laramie with skill games would have to get rid of them or face citations.
Lt. Gwen Smith of the LPD said she doesn’t often see scenarios where something that was established became illegal, and law enforcement wanted to give businesses with the machines time to comply.
The Wind River Casino had 851 slot machines as of April, according to an outside evaluation of the casino conducted by Spectrum Gaming Group. Each new machine costs $20,000.
At the end of January, the tribal-backed Wyoming Public Policy Center released a “white paper” warning about the “true impact” of video skill games.
“Studies show that taxpayers in localities that introduce gambling can typically expect to spend around $3 to address increased addiction, crime and bankruptcy for every $1 in revenue to the state,” the lobbying group said in that paper.
The group has also occasionally used pro-gambling messages, urging Wyomingites to oppose the creation of a gaming commission to “stop the government from crashing your Friday night poker game.”
In recent weeks, the group has again ramped up efforts in fights over legislative proposals, like the work of the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee that’s studying the expansion of state gambling operations.
-A previous version of this story misidentified Mark Howell as an attorney. He is a lobbyist with a private consulting group.