Geoff Hager, the chair of the Osage Nation’s Gaming Enterprise Board, faced some pointed questions when he went before a congressional committee to get the board’s budget approved.
The issue: The board’s and casino executives’ use of private airplanes to travel to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where the tribe is aiming to build a casino.
Hager’s fellow board member, Julie Malone, acknowledged that she had been alarmed by some of the private-jet travel in the past that included at least one trip to Las Vegas – which is easily and cheaply accessible by commercial flights – but said that the board had put a stop to such extravagant practices.
The revelation of private flights elicited some scolding from Congress members.
“I’m certainly sure there was some data or information on commercial flights versus private jet flights,” Congresswoman Brandy Lemon told Hager during the Sept. 15 meeting for the Commerce, Gaming and Land Committee meeting.
“I’m just trying to understand how our people’s money is being spent.
“Some would say it’s an exuberant amount.”
The Gaming Enterprise Board, which oversaw casinos that funneled almost $59 million to the Nation in fiscal 2022, is limited to $6,000 in travel expenses for its five members each year, or $1,200 for each of its five members. Regular board members are paid $16,800 a year; the chair is paid $21,000.
Two appointees to the board, who have yet to be confirmed, travel from Missouri for the monthly meetings in Tulsa – one from the Lake of the Ozarks area and the other from near Kansas City. Both drives about 270 miles to the meeting location in Tulsa, incurring about $340 a month – $8,160 a year if no special meetings occur – in mileage expense at the current reimbursement rate set by the Internal Revenue Service.
Hager told the commerce committee that he estimates the board’s actual travel expenses just for travel to and from regular meetings at $14,000 – none of it involving any form of air travel.
Congress was most inquisitive about private plane travel that the board uses on occasion when casino executives travel to Missouri for meetings regarding the planned casino there. Essentially, unnamed board members hitched a ride on an already chartered plane and, on at least one occasion, so did an unnamed member of the executive branch of government.
Hager said that because of how private aircraft rental works, it was hard to break down that expense per person.
Hager balked at saying what price the casinos paid for the private flights, saying that should be discussed behind closed doors, a request to which committee Chair Congresswoman Jodie Revard agreed.
Hager did say that the location of Lake of the Ozarks is not served by any commercial jet service.
Driving from Tulsa to Osage Beach takes about 4½ hours one way, while the private flight takes 38 minutes.
According to Flight Concepts, a private air service in Tulsa, the cost of chartering a 6-passenger Cessna Citation jet from Tulsa to Lee C. Fine Airport in Brumley, Mo. – 14 miles from Osage Beach – with a full passenger load and no overnight stay would cost $8,425.85, including taxes, fuel, landing, short leg and miscellaneous charges. That’s $1,400 per person without any negotiated discounts. The Osage News also obtained a quote from a national private jet service that put the cost between $11,000 for a turboprop and $14,000 for a “light cabin” jet, both of which hold six passengers.
“I think it’s only fair for our constituency to know what we spend on the project – any project – and where we travel and how we travel,” said Lemon.
“If you took a commercial flight that’s definitely your own ticket per person, or if you drive a car or took the bus,” Lemon said. “Those are the ways other people travel.
“I’m not sure that private jets are the best way to travel with our people’s money.”
10-16 hours by Greyhound
No scheduled bus goes to Osage Beach, but if the board and casino executives chose to travel by Greyhound, they could catch a bus in Tulsa, then travel between 10 hours and 10 minutes to 15 hours and 45 minutes to Jefferson City, Mo., from which they could then take a taxi for an hour to Osage Beach for around $140 each way. That would save travel money, with a total price tag of about $350 per person.
Commercial airlines are no faster than driving: Three airlines – American, United and Delta – offer flights that take between four and 17 hours each way for $326 to $1,244 roundtrip from Tulsa to St. Louis – and that city is three hours away from Osage Beach. Southwest has two non-stop flights every day between Tulsa and St. Louis for $142-$520 roundtrip, but with car travel, even the 1 hour 20-minute flight coupled with three hours of car travel makes the trip as long as driving.
Driving from Tulsa to Osage Beach is about 270 miles one way, which means each round trip in a car cost about $340 at the current federal mileage rate.
None of the travel scenarios takes into account the amount of money those traveling are paid to be sitting in a car, bus or plane when they could otherwise be productive – harkening back to the old aphorism. “Time is money.”
No more private jets to Vegas
Hager tried to make the point that while private aircraft are certainly not the least expensive way to travel, they are the most efficient when the destination is Osage Beach. Ultimately, he said, the board crunched the numbers comparing travel and lodging and made a business decision that it was wiser to fly privately than to get to Missouri by other means.
“There are not, nor will there be any regular trips other than Missouri that are in this private air scenario,” he said.
Both he and Malone alluded to past private jet travel being inappropriate, but Malone appeared to indicate that no member of the enterprise board was on any private flight to Las Vegas.
Hager said the Las Vegas trip occurred before he was named to the board: “I don’t know if it was due to an urgent situation that came up. I can only speak to what I know.”
Malone, who has been on the board longer than Hager has said that the board found out about the Las Vegas trip “after the fact” and had, until recently, been unaware that the casino leadership was using a private plane to travel anywhere.
“It’s kind of news to the board,” she said. “We’re trying to deal with policy and procedure concerning flights and other matters concerning expenses.
“We grew really fast. As you know, the Tulsa casino is big money, and a lot of our infrastructure needs to catch up. This came to our attention, and we will be revising our policies and procedures to catch up with these new expenditures.”
Congressman Billy Keene then had a direct question: “Would you say, for the record, there was travel that the board became aware of that you found alarming? Yes or no?”
Responded Malone: “Yes. As a board member, yes.”
Pay your own way?
At one point during the Commerce committee meeting, Congressman Joe Tillman pushed the new gaming enterprise board appointees from Missouri, Claudette Carnett and Bruce Pollock, about how they had responded to a question regarding whether they expected to be paid for travel and whether they would bear the expense of travel themselves.
Carnett replied that she found the question about bearing her own expenses rather peculiar and that she’d have to review the nominee questions to be sure how she responded.
“I can say that the reimbursement I’ve received has only been for fuel,” she said. “I don’t put in for food or anything like that. I can say that we spend a lot of time on this. It takes away from work. It takes away from home.”
Pollock bristled a bit.
“I’m a little surprised that this conversation has gone this deep over a stipend,” he said. “I agreed [to be on the Gaming Enterprise Board] not knowing that there was a stipend. Now that I’m doing it, I understand why there is a stipend, and it should be a lot more than it is in my opinion.
“You’re expecting us to run the largest enterprise of this Nation and you don’t think there should be some money behind it to pay our bills?
“Don’t expect that from anybody. My heart is in this 110 percent for this tribe. I set this [Missouri casino] in motion several years ago, before I was even asked to do this.
“I just want you to know, I’m a little surprised.”