The Osage Nation Gaming Commission sent notices on Jan. 13 to the five members of the ON Gaming Enterprise Board commanding them to comply with a request for documents by Jan. 20 – or face a show-cause hearing which could result in the suspension or revocation of the licenses allowing them to perform their board duties.
The commission, which serves as the regulatory body ensuring Osage Casinos comply with the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and other federal laws, has slated a meeting for Jan. 20 and has only two substantive agenda items on it, both to be heard in closed session: “Licensing Matters” and “Investigative/Other Matters.”
Which documents the Commission is seeking from the Enterprise Board could not be determined for certain by the Osage News, although they appear to center on executive employment and separation contracts.
Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said the Commission, the Enterprise Board and the ON Congress are at loggerheads over the parallel investigations by Congress and the Commission into casino executives’ expenses and the policies pertaining thereto, subjects that have roiled some folks since Congress declassified 1,556 pages of expense reports and other documents released in early December.
Standing Bear said the standoff boils down to the Enterprise Board’s objection to Congress seizing upon records the Commission obtained that are by definition confidential, then declassifying them and releasing them publicly without considering the ramifications of that act – and without affording the subjects of those records the opportunity to object to the release of those records.
“If the Enterprise Board members resign and I ask someone else to serve, they have to know that the Gaming Commission can give them one week to comply with a request, then they can face up to a $5,000 fine and have their license revoked – then what they hand over to the Gaming Commission gets sent over to the Osage Nation Congress and gets put on individual Congress members’ social media,” Standing Bear said. (He was apparently referring to Congressman Eli Potts posting the declassified documents on his website, elipotts.com, which was blocked on tribal internet servers until the News notified the Nation’s IT department.)
“Basically, as soon as the [Gaming Commission] gives the Congress anything, it becomes public,” Standing Bear added. “The new documents are under the same objection.”
Missteps by Congress alleged
The chief as well as Gaming Enterprise Board member Mark Simms also averred that Congress made two missteps in its decision to reclassify the documents as public: It failed to seek input from the casino executives and casino and tribal employees whose personal details were revealed in the report, and it failed to send the vote to reclassify to the Chief’s office for review, as required by the Osage Constitution.
The expense reports, which were released in December along with a brief report from the Gaming Commission, covered the period from Jan. 1, 2019, through Dec. 31, 2021. Since September 2021, when the Enterprise Board began reviewing expenses and the casinos saw their memberships terminated by the Tulsa, Summit and Patriot Golf clubs, the expenses have fallen dramatically, Gaming Enterprise Chairman Geoff Hager said in December. Hager was adamant that Congress’ decision to make the reports public was reckless and imperiled the tribe’s efforts to build a casino in Missouri. Hager came onto the board in late 2021 and two other board members, Claudette Carnett and Bruce Pollock, are even fresher as 2022 appointees. Simms and Julie Malone round out the board and have been on it for nine and five years respectively.
The declassified reports were from three casino executives: Former Chief Executive Byron Bighorse, who is Chief Standing Bear’s son-in-law and who resigned a few days before the records were released publicly; former Chief Operating Officer Kimberly Pearson, who was promoted to CEO when Bighorse resigned; Chief Financial Officer Tim Steinke; plus Bighorse’s executive assistant, Kasi Stumpff.
The Open Records Act says “Congress may reclassify as public any document marked as protected, confidential, proprietary or nonpublic after providing notice and an opportunity to be heard to interested parties in executive session and upon an affirmative vote of the majority of the Members of Congress in a regular or special session, except for protected records.”
Personal details, including a medical treatment
The personal details in the released records include a medical treatment for one employee as well as a raft of receipts that essentially offered a snapshot of executives’ private lives. Those who read the declassified expense reports learned about the executives’ drinking and eating habits down to who likes caviar, who likes Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, who opts for Impossible burgers at lunch, some clothing sizes, shopping preferences (for instance one executive dislikes entering convenience stores and refuses to do so even when a gas pump fails to crank out a receipt), and more.
On Jan. 18, the Osage News texted Bighorse, the former chief executive officer whose expense reports sparked much outrage among members of Congress and the public.
“Before the Congress voted to release the expense reports, did Congress ever afford you (or your colleagues) the opportunity to object to their release?” the News asked.
BigHorse responded succinctly: “No.”
Alice Goodfox, the speaker of the ON Congress, responded in writing to questions from the Osage News. She disputed the idea the executives and employee Stumpff were “interested parties.”
“The Gaming Enterprise Board, as the appointed Executive Branch Tribal Enterprise Board, was notified as the interested party of their opportunity to appear and be heard on the matter of reclassification of records, as they oversee the management of the Gaming Enterprise, and the subject matter was over casino expenses on company accounts, not on personal accounts,” Goodfox wrote.
“The Board was welcome to bring any Casino employee, Executive Branch employee or Casino Executive with them to be heard, but as you know the Board simply wrote a letter and chose not to appear before Congress. We do not know who the Gaming Enterprise Board chose to include in their decision to write the letter.”
‘Due process should not be an inconvenience‘
In the Open Records Act’s section on reclassifying documents, protected records that Congress is barred from releasing, unsurprisingly, include medical records.
Among the records released with the expense reports were two bills for vitamin drips, including one with prescription medicines for pain and nausea, that were administered to one casino employee and one Executive Branch appointee during a trip to a tribal gaming conference in Las Vegas.
(The cost of the drip was reimbursed by the two individuals this past fall, amid the investigations into the expense reports, and more than a year after the Las Vegas conference.)
As Goodfox pointed out, the casino executives’ expenses were indeed charged to company credit cards and the casinos’ accounts at private clubs.
Standing Bear said notice was required to be given to the casino executives before the records were declassified and that they should have been allowed to be heard.
“Providing notice and due process should not be an inconvenience,” Standing Bear said.
Should the vote have been subject to review by the chief?
In Article 6 of the ON Constitution, which concerns Congress, Section 15 says in its entirety: “Each order, resolution or vote, except such as relate to the business or adjournment of the legislature, shall be presented to the Principal Chief and is subject to a veto with an override provision.”
That provision of the Constitution has largely been ignored since the Constitution was ratified in 2006, nor has it been interpreted by Osage courts.
Chief Standing Bear said he received no notice of the reclassification of casino executives’ expense reports, and Speaker Goodfox agreed no effort was made to seek input from the Office of the Chiefs.
“The Office of the Chiefs was not presented with the vote to reclassify records,” Goodfox wrote. “Article VI, Section 15 has never been interpreted so narrowly to require motion votes of the Osage Nation Congress to be sent to the Principal Chief for veto.”
Simms, who has sat on the gaming board for nine years and chaired it for many of those, said the lack of review harmed the Osage Casinos, which have consistently increased their annual distribution to the tribe.
“It’s a shame because they’ve been trying to micromanage things,” Simms said, noting the casinos upped their most recent distribution to the tribe from $49 million to $58 million and it’s expected to climb again this coming year.
“We just need to stop fighting and start working together because if we don’t, the golden goose can only take so much.
“This whole deal could be cleared up by an executive session with the Gaming Commission, the gaming board and the casino.
“I guess it’s kind of a power struggle and the board got caught up in it.
“It’s a shame because it’s a young board, a good board. And they really have their hearts into it.”
CORRECTION: The Tulsa, Summit and Patriot Golf clubs terminated Osage Casinos’ memberships in September of 2021, not 2022. The Osage News regrets the error.