In Reams Of Town Documents, A Look At The Demise Of The Tribe's Middleborough Casino

Share     |   Comments   |   Print

By: Brian Kehrl
Published: 09/03/10

Compiled in five deep boxes in Middleborough Town Hall are documents that tell one part of the back story of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s casino plans in the southeastern Massachusetts town.

More than 10,000 pages of e-mails, formal letters, meeting minutes, and detailed development plans were gathered in response to a July 14 public records request by an attorney for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council.

A detailed review of about a third of the documents—including all of the records related to the town manager’s office and the town planner’s e-mails but not other documents related to the town planner—provides a rare view into the Middleborough town government’s perspective of how the project came and, seemingly, went.

The documents chart the project from its quiet inception and chaotic public unveiling, through a brief honeymoon after the intergovernmental agreement was approved, down through the accusations against and guilty plea by former tribal council chairman Glenn A. Marshall, to upwelling questions about the relationship between the town and the tribe.

They provide a glimpse of the casino plans and politics as the tribe shifted from Middleborough to Fall River, a change of heart that has led to Middleborough officials opening a conflict resolution process and threatening legal action against the tribe.

The conflict resolution process was ongoing as of last week, according to Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell.

There are fascinating exchanges, laying out the thought process that went into the diplomacy between the town and the tribe and the state government, as well as clear statements of frustration held by town officials with the level of communication from the tribe, particularly about hearing of developments from news reports rather than in advance from the tribe.

But Middleborough officials are holding on to the project, as evidenced by their initiation on July 13 of the conflict resolution process, in which they claim that the intergovernmental agreement is still in effect. The town has performed its obligations under the agreement, they claimed, and threatened to sue to stop the Fall River project from moving forward.

Middleborough Town Planner Ruth M. Geoffroy, the casino project manager for the town, said the town still believes it
has a valid contract and a viable casino plan in place.

Ms. Geoffroy said she had no clear understanding of why the tribe would file the public records request, and pay the more than $3,000 associated with gathering and copying each of the documents, but she could speculate. “To be a pain,” she said.

A spokesman for the tribal council said Mr. Cromwell and another tribal council member involved in establishing a relationship with the town, Yvonne Avant, would not comment on issues related to Middleborough.

The First Meeting
The documents stretch back near to the beginning of Middleborough’s relationship with the tribe. They do not, however, include several early records obtained by the Enterprise in an August 2007 public records request, like handwritten notes by the former town manager from an early meeting with tribal officials and representatives.

The four pages, dated March 19, 2007, list out the names of tribal leaders and political advisors, who presumably attended the meeting, as well the basics of the project: “not a small facility”, “at least 200 —> 300 acres”, “1,000 – 1,200 rooms”, “destination resort”.

The town manager’s notes include snippets from a conversation about the process and other benefits: “BIA Bureaucratic Inactivity Always” with a description of the land into trust process, as well as “Would love to lead the charge in saving the Taunton River (+ Nemasket)” above a list of the wages and benefits available to resort casino employees.

And the notes include the names of three lobbyists and advisors who previously worked for the tribe: Jack Ambramoff and his associates Michael Smith and Kevin Ring.

Also missing from the documents was the “Town Manager’s Report” from March 1, 2007, in which Town Manager John F. Healey proposed to selectmen the idea of reaching out to the tribe: “Casino Anyone?” is the title of one section. “According to news releases the Wampanoag of Mashpee are looking for about 200 acres in Southeastern Massachusetts...How do you feel about exploratory discussions? Remember the last time we had such a discussion it was about a “Theme Park” at Southpoint, it drew instant criticism and was abandoned before it became more of an idea.”

Ms. Geoffroy said the memorandum, as well as other documents from the town manager’s office apparently not included in the request, were likely lost during the transition from Mr. Healey, to an interim town manager, to the current administration of Town Manager Charles Cristello.

She said she took on oversight of the project after Mr. Healey retired in mid-summer of 2007.

Mr. Cristello did not return a call seeking comment this week.

Shock And The Frenzy
The documents now collected in Middleborough Town Hall also include very few correspondences or e-mail among the selectmen and very few letters received from residents.

There is reference, however, to the inception of the project. In an e-mail exchange between attorneys representing the town and the tribe’s previous gambling investors, Lawrence B. Deitch, the investors attorney, expresses frustration after being told that the intergovernmental agreement would have to go to Town Meeting. “I am shocked by the Town Meeting comment. Please note that it was the Town leadership which invited the Tribe to Middleborough. We were told explicitly that no Town Meeting was required,” Mr. Deitch wrote in the June 22, 2007 e-mail.

Ms. Geoffroy said this week that the town had long been interested in a casino, even expressing interest when the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), was looking into gaming locations in the 1990s.

“The town made some effort to see if there was an interest, because we know that we are a really good location. And the town has strongly embraced its native history,” she said.

In that same correspondence between attorneys, the town’s attorney, Dennis Whittlesey, notes that the plan has provoked unusually intense opposition in Middleborough. “Still, there is a frenzy which is real. (Ask me about the ‘$15,000 bribe’ reportedly paid to me several years ago when we next talk ... or how [Selectman] Adam Bond is the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ sent to Middleborough years ago by the casino industry to burrow in and get elected to the Board of Selectmen.”

Highs And Lows
The town’s relationship with the tribe has been marked by big ups and big downs, from notes about the great trust the two governments have in each other to emails among town officials questioning the fealty of the tribe.

Some of the high points evidenced in the public records came between town officials and tribal council members Cheryl Frye-Cromwell and Yvonne Avant, who were assigned to be the “tribal contacts” for the town. They exchanged kind little notes with town officials, passed on wishes for happy holidays, and thanked each other for meetings.

Ms. Avant sought to reassure the town following the announcement of charges against Mr. Marshall: “As we all heard the news of Glenn Marshall’s confession we were hurt, saddened, and shocked. We were all aware of the ongoing investigation but had hopes, and expectations, that it would show no wrong doing. We were shocked!! Please understand that we know you share the same feelings. You have become ‘family’ and will share in the future prosperity of this tribe and Middleborough. We need to get through this together...We are honest good people that are appreciative of the trust you have put in us.”

The relationship is also illustrated in e-mail exchanges between town officials and Stephen J. Graham, the tribe’s political handler and scheduler who advised Mr. Marshall during the campaign contribution scheme.

The town followed the tribe’s request to commence gaming state compact negotiations in 2008 with a letter of its own. In response to the town sending a draft copy of the letter to the tribe, Mr. Graham responded,

“Town Manager, Chairman Hendricks certainly appreciates your expedited action on sending the letter and the wording suits him fine. Thanks, Steve.”

Mr. Graham invited Ms. Geoffroy to a Christmas party and a family function.

Mr. Graham, reached by telephone this week, declined to comment on the documents.

“I haven’t been around that in so long. I know nothing about it,” he said. “That is way in the past. I am not going back over that. But thank you for calling.”

But while the relationship seemed strong at many points, at others town officials expressed strong frustration about the level of communication they were receiving from the tribe.

For example, in September 2008, before the town sent its letter of support for the gaming compact negotiations, the tribe sent a letter to Governor Deval L. Patrick requesting to enter into negotiations, with no mention of including Middleborough officials.

The tribe informed the town about the letter by forwarding a link to an article in The Boston Globe. Ms. Geoffroy then forwarded the link to Mr. Cristello and then selectman Adam Bond, with a note attached: “This is the level of notice that the Tribe gave to the Town on requesting compact negotiations.”

Similarly, the town received a statement from a spokesman for the tribe about the tribe “considering a number of locations in Southeastern, MA,” from a newspaper reporter.

Ms. Geoffrey said, “They played the media all along. They used to have Joe Shortsleeve on Channel Four set up to break any news they wanted to break, whenever they wanted it. We were supposed to have an agreement and we were supposed to be working toward the same goal.”

“And certainly more recently, with all this pussyfooting in Fall River going on, they would say one thing and we would hear something different. Ever since February 2009 it has been like that.”

Ms. Geoffroy said that after Mr. Cromwell was elected in February 2009, the tribe fired most of its professional developers. “Things just came to a standstill. We were going full tilt until then, trying to get them to a point they needed to start by,” she said.

The Falling Apart
Ms. Geoffroy on several occasions suggested in e-mails to Mr. Cristello and other town officials that the tribe was responding to state pressure for the tribe to move from Middleborough to a more urban area on the South Coast, pressure that state and tribe officials have previously denied was exerted.

But Ms. Geoffroy said her opinion was based on interactions with state officials, from the governor’s office and the legislature, who indicated that they would rather see the casino elsewhere.

In May 2010, Ms. Geoffroy wrote in an e-mail to town officials: “I think a lot of this is being structured by the State who wanted this in New Bedford or Fall River. The State wouldn’t play ball with them in Middleborough on the highway work. They had all kinds of immediate access issues. The press seem to think that we will go after Fall River and the State in the lawsuit.”

In another e-mail, Ms. Geoffroy noted that a November 2009 draft of legislation to expand gambling made reference to a casino in Bristol County, which includes Fall River and New Bedford, rather than Plymouth County, which includes Middleborough.

That legislation marked one of the first indications for the town that things were not moving their way.

Town officials spent several months postulating that the tribe seemed to be developing a wandering eye. They requested meetings with the tribe but did not hear back.

Ms. Geoffroy tried to use the channels she had developed previously, with the town’s tribal liaisons, to set something up.

“I know things are rocky on a lot of fronts right now. I’m writing to you because the Town Manager (Charlie Cristello) and I have been getting no response from Cedric. We have called several times since the Carcieri ruling came down just to see how the Tribe felt, whether Jerry Straus was still representing you in Washington, etc. We haven’t heard from him...Our correspondence is for Charlie and I, we don’t intend to share it with anyone else,” Ms. Geoffroy wrote in an e-mail to Ms. Avant in March of 2009.

Soon after, Ms. Avant responded: “It is a little crazy right now, please forgive Cedric for not responding. I’ll make sure he gives you a call tomorrow. He and Aaron have been in DC since Saturday with meetings all day regarding the Carcieri Ruling. He’s flying in late tonight and will get back to you. We did get a call from Kurt Chandler (BIA) and he said that the BIA is going forward with the land into trust application and hopefully Congress will get this straightened out soon.”

Later, in late 2009 and early 2010, as it became more clear that the tribe was looking beyond Middleborough, the selectmen became involved in more formal correspondence. In February 2010 they requested a meeting with the tribe, citing quotes from Mr. Cromwell in the news media. The tribe did not respond until April 6. The meeting never happened; the Fall River deal was announced a few weeks later.

In the last few months, the rolls seem to have reversed.

Mr. Cromwell wrote to the tribe on June 29, 2010, alleging that the town was using the mitigation money it received for legal fees associated with action against the tribe and asking for proof to the contrary.

The public records request included billing information for the casino project mitigation money, documents that do not show any clear connection between the annual $250,000 payments and the town’s pursuit of litigation against the tribe.

Yet while accusatory, Mr. Cromwell’s letter opens with optimism that the tribe and the town can work cooperatively going forward.

“To that end, the Tribe repeats its request to meet with the Town to discuss a future mutually-beneficial use of the Middleborough land...The tribe is in the process of preparing an amendment to its land in trust application and would like to have this discussion with the Town before finalizing and filing the amended application so that we will have the Town’s input when we do so.”

There is no indication that that meeting has taken place; a few weeks later the Town of Middleborough initiated the dispute resolution process.

Follow us on Facebook