TACOMA, Wash. – Early this month, the Puyallup Tribe shook up its economic development for-profit corporation, Puyallup International Inc. (PII) amid charges of corruption at the highest levels of the tribal government.
Six of seven board members were replaced and PII’s top officers were fired. In published reports following the shake-up, the only official word was that the Puyallup government wanted the PII to go in a “different direction.”
Among those dismissed were Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Tail and Vice President James Miles. The tribe also fired its lobbyist Carrie Frank and have told its outside accounting firm they will no longer be needed by the end of this month.
A broad cross section of Puyallup tribal members and former employees claim the shake-up was politically and personally motivated by members of the tribal council. They allege the council wanted to further the interests of a few tribal members, including an attempted $4 million payment to cover the personal debt of a former tribal chairwoman who sits on the new PII board.
All of the sources for this story chose to remain anonymous because they said they feared reprisals.
Some say the shake-up is especially puzzling because the PII was about to close a deal on a major power plant to be built and operated in Puyallup and was making steady progress in other areas as well. Some of its accomplishments include construction of two gas stations and the Emerald Queen riverboat casino.
An individual close to the tribal council said the council claims it did not receive any accountability reports from the PII, something she claims is “absolutely not true.”
She claims that although reports and internal audits were delivered to the tribal council in a “timely manner,” the council turned around and told tribal members it did not receive any such reports.
Last year the entire tribal gaming commission was fired and replaced, allegedly after that entity began investigating former chairwoman and current PII board member Roleen Hargrove. Tribal sources say one of the replacements was Hargrove’s sister.
It is reported that representatives from the commission went to Hargrove’s office and told her that they were going to seize her documents. That same night, Hargrove’s office was broken into and her files and computer were burglarized though a security staff was on duty. A brand new computer in the office was not taken, they said.
Perhaps the harshest accusation surrounds the attempted $4 million personal bailout of Hargrove.
Puyallup is one of the only tribes in the United States that has individual ownership of gaming establishments grandfathered-in when the Indian Gaming Regulation Act was passed in 1987.
It is charged that Hargrove, who owned the Microdome Bingo near Tacoma, misinterpreted the new rules and thought she could turn her establishment into a full-fledged casino. Further it is alleged she ran up a $3.5 million debt when she contracted with a California company to lay out the infrastructure for a casino, using the Puyallup Tribe as collateral. Tribal members said she had borrowed an additional $500,000.
As part of the alleged deal with the council, documents show Hargrove would receive $4 million for the Microdome Bingo Hall. Sources said the property is in disrepair and has been appraised by different realtors at between $200,000 and $800,000.
They allege that money intended for the attempted bailout would come from casino proceeds as well as those from the tribally owned and PII developed Chinook Landing Marina.
“My question is, besides the fact that the tribe isn’t paying off anyone else’s debt, is where is the other $3 million going?” one tribal member asked.
The resolution to make the payment was passed by the tribal council in secrecy. A document obtained by Indian Country Today shows that on May 9 of this year Chairman Herman Dillon and council members Lawrence LaPointe, Sylvia Miller and Margaret Edwards approved a resolution to make the $4 million purchase. Puyallup tribal rules require only a majority of the seven-member council to pass a resolution.
The critics charge that the council failed to take the matter to the entire membership and even some council members were not present when the resolution went through. Furthermore, they say that several individuals repeatedly were rebuffed in their attempts to gain information about the resolution.
In an interesting development, the council suddenly changed course and rescinded the payment. Puyallup tribal sources say the council backed down in the face of mounting public criticism and a lawsuit filed by a few Puyallup tribal members in tribal court.
“They only backed off after everyone found out about what they were doing,” one source said.
Published reports said the tribe claims part of the reason for the shake-up was an amendment to the PII charter that stated all board members must be Puyallup. Critics claim that rule was implemented as part of the deal between Hargrove, former Chairwoman Bertha Jane Turnipseed and the tribal council.
Ron Wrolson, who was not implicated in any accusations, is one of the new PII board members. He said the media has blown many of the charges out of proportion and insists PII is nothing but a small property management company. He said he believes the new PII board was chosen fairly. Wrolson said 25 people applied for the board and he was “honored and surprised” to have been chosen.
Wrolson said the PII shake-up was not politically motivated and that the former employees were simply laid off, with the possibility of being rehired at a later date. He said the original board positions had just expired. He said he was present when the police had to escort the employees out and that it was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
About the critics’ charges, Wrolson said his record is clean and he refused to comment directly on any of the other board members’ “personal dealings.” He confirmed that the new board has held a few meetings and says it is in the process of an internal audit.
“So far, I have seen nothing but professionalism and the highest regard for the tribe,” Wrolson said.
He added that many of the critics are disgruntled employees using the PII shakeup as a venue for their sour grapes. “No one has a clean closet.”
Of the alleged bailout, Wrolson said he believes there is a “pack of wolves” who want to get their hands on the property and that the tribe just offered the money to keep it as tribal property. He characterized Hargrove as someone who has paid the price for financial hardship and said that life has not been easy for her recently.
Additionally Wrolson said he cannot offer additional information until the audit is completed. In the meantime, he said the board has one simple task, to make money for the tribe.
Repeated calls to Hargrove, Turnipseed, Dillion and two other council members were not returned.