In April 2019, Osage Casinos assistant controller Jake Taylor shot an email to his boss, Chief Financial Officer Tim Steinke.
Taylor attached a spreadsheet of 139 expense claims totaling $39,191.21 by the casinos’ CEO, Byron Bighorse, going back to June 2017.
His question was plainspoken: “Tim, are you OK with these all being business expenses?”
Five minutes later, at 2:58 p.m. on April 9, Steinke responded: “He told me he pulled anything out that was an obvious personal expense and said the ONGE board approval [sic] his membership reimbursement.”
Taylor’s question was on point: Osage Casinos picked up the tab for tens of thousands of dollars for expensive dinners, pricey wine and whisky, beer, golf and tennis clothes, golf clubs and other purchases Bighorse and his wife, Jennifer, who was the casinos’ marketing director until the fall of 2021, racked up at such places as The Polo Grill and Fleming’s restaurants, the Patriot Golf Club in Owasso and the Summit Club in Tulsa.
“There’s a charge last year for over $4,500 at the Summit Club in one day,” said Congressman Billy Keene. “It is mindboggling how that could be pushed through. How could no one even bat an eye at something like that? That’s malfeasance, to bill $4,500 in alcohol – on July 13, 2021.”
Between January 2019 and September 2021, Bighorse charged $398,552 in expenses to the casinos, of which about $107,000 was spent at the Patriot, Summit and Tulsa Country clubs. The remaining $291,300 was spent using a Bank of America Visa card issued to the casinos.
Clearly, some of the spending was for legitimate purposes, but in September 2021, the Osage Nation Gaming Enterprise Board reviewed the expense reports of the top casino executives, and Bighorse’s executive assistant, and concluded some expenditures had been for personal items. Later that month, Bighorse wrote two checks to the casino totaling $5,222 to reimburse the casinos – $4,482 for charges racked up at the Tulsa Country Club and $740 at the Patriot Golf Club.
On a photocopy of the two checks, Steinke wrote: “This is his reimbursement of charges deemed to be personal by Byron: Patriot = October 2020-June 20 | Tulsa CC = Jan. 2021-August 2021.”
Revard: Board was ho-hum when he raised questions
In August of this year, nearly a year later, the Osage Nation Congress asked the tribal Gaming Commission, which is charged with regulating the casinos, to look into the expense reports of Bighorse, his assistant Kasi Stumpff, Steinke, and then-Chief Operating Officer Kimberly Pearson. The commission requested documents from the gaming board, which delivered them on Sept. 2 and Sept. 19.
Two days after the last delivery, the commission issued a letter to Alice Goodfox, the speaker of the Congress, recommending the “Enterprise Board or its designee review all expenses, including credit card and country club or other club charges, automobile allowances, bonus amounts in conjunction with the bonus structure, and all other executive benefits and submit a comprehensive report to the stakeholders of the Osage Nation at least annually regarding these expenses.”
The recommendation came a year after Mark Revard, who chaired the gaming board from November 2021 through April 2022, raised concerns about expenses and the checks and balances on them.
“I only asked one or two questions and it seemed like it pulled on a string,” Revard said.
“A few people on the board didn’t seem to see the information the same way I did. One board member didn’t even look at the information. Some thought it was business as usual, that everything was justified, that the lack of checks and balances – like names not being on receipts – was no big deal.
“My goal was to make it to where we could sleep at night, to have checks and balances and policies and procedures in place to not only do the right thing but to be a model of how we should be running things.
“I ran into roadblocks and stalling and headwinds – not from the C-suite, so to speak, but more from the board.
“I was constantly reminded … to always make sure we remember it’s the people’s money.
“This has to do with baby formula, diapers and college tuition.”
Revard said he instituted a new policy that two board members would review and sign off on the top brass’s expenses and that he signed off on them two or three times before Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear declined to reappoint him to the board. He left the gaming board in April 2022.
The current chairman of the gaming board, Geoff Hager, said Revard instituted new policies that caused executive expenses to plummet since the summer of 2021: Two members of the board review the top brass’s expenses every month and sign off on them, and they are insisting the long-time requirement that names of dinner and other guests be included on expense reports.
“This is not something remedied by Congress,” said Hager, who believes a recent decision by Congress to make the expense records public is reckless. “It was remedied by the board last year – and a year later was made public by the Congress.
“The issue was taken care of a year ago. I don’t want to take credit myself; it was instituted when Mark Revard was chair and I continued that process when I took over as chair.”
Gaming Board: Public release of documents ‘irresponsible’
The Gaming Commission report also noted Hager told regulators there had been a misunderstanding about expense policy and had since been cleared up.
In November, in a move the Gaming Enterprise Board fought, the Osage Nation Congress voted to declassify the report and underlying documentation.
On Dec. 6, four days after Bighorse resigned as CEO and was granted a $600,000 after-tax separation package, a lightly redacted version of it was released to the Osage News, which conducted its own review of the 1,556 pages of receipts, bank statements, club bills and other documents.
The report, and its release, have stirred up a hullabaloo.
On one side: Outrage over profligate spending of tribal resources and suspicion it was tolerated and kept quiet because Bighorse is married to Chief Standing Bear’s daughter, Jennifer.
On the other: Much angst over needless damage that scurrilous revelations could cause, because Bighorse has already resigned and the underlying weaknesses in expense reporting were addressed in 2021, according to gaming board chair Hager and member and former longtime chair Mark Simms.
The casinos no longer pay for any club memberships; they were terminated as of September 2021, mostly if not entirely by the clubs themselves.
Chief: ‘We do not interfere. We swore that oath’
Standing Bear dismissed any suggestion he has any control over the gaming enterprise other than appointing the gaming board members, who are subject to confirmation by Congress and can only be removed by Congress.
“We are instructed to be hands-off in our Constitution and we do not interfere with their operations,” Standing Bear said. “With any tribal entity. We swore that oath.”
He added he is staying out of “Byron’s stuff” because it is a personnel matter between Bighorse and the board.
Standing Bear also expressed disdain for Congressman Eli Potts’ posts on social media and the internet, which he said he hadn’t read but has been briefed on.
“I do not read Potts’ stuff since the election,” Standing Bear said. “But I know two gaming board members felt that Potts is threatening them with removal and they feel pressure because of those statements by him. He is extremely biased and inaccurate.”
Hager: Congress is posturing when the problem has already been addressed
Hager spared no opportunity to lament Congress’ actions in making the report public a year after the fact, and said those actions will damage the enterprise – “specifically as it pertains to our highest profile strategic expansion projects.” The Osage Nation is building two new casinos in Bartlesville and Pawhuska and is angling to build one in Missouri. The Missouri casino has local opposition that is likely to seize on anything negative associated with Osage Casinos.
“Not only were policy improvements already implemented and underway, there were so many other ways with which this situation could have been handled without taking the reckless approach of making these documents public,” Hager said. “It’s disturbing actually.
“Our Constitution states that any proprietary gaming data is to remain confidential and there’s a reason for that. Not to hide someone’s perceived indiscretions, but to keep our Nation’s most important funding mechanism protected from situations exactly like this which serve as a giant distraction to our employees and to our continued growth.
“This sequence of events on this issue is completely irresponsible given the other options that were available, including allowing the Gaming Commission to continue their processes, as we at the enterprise have remained entirely compliant with their requests and recommendations.”
Simms, who has been on the gaming board for almost nine years and chaired it for six, echoed those concerns, noting Bighorse had turned the casinos into a debt-free business and increased revenue by $5 million to $6 million a year since stepping into the CEO’s post in 2014 after three former top officials lost their gaming license due to alleged wrongdoing. Bighorse spent the previous seven years as the general manager of the Nation’s Sand Springs casino and as the casino’s special events manager.
“He has been a tremendous businessman,” Simms said. “The Nation is going to miss him because he’s done so well.
“When I first hired him, he started plugging all the loopholes where money was going out needlessly, and tightening down on expenses so the casino could make more money. He was very eloquent. People really liked him, he made good deals at the bank, and he won all kinds of awards. A lot of people that he sponsored things for thought he was the greatest person in the world.
“He’s a very kind man, he didn’t like the conflict. That’s where his downfall was. He was too kind. I hate to say that because people took advantage of that.
“In my opinion, he was the best CEO we ever had. He brought us out of the dark and into making money.”
Beer, wine, whisky, shoes, golf irons and Lululemon
Clearly, some of the expenses were legitimate, but many, like $1,488 for five golf clubs, $475 for FootJoy wingtips and $65 Lululemon Hotty Hot shorts at the Patriot appear questionable. Others, such as $1,860 for four shots of 30-year-old Macallan scotch whisky at the Summit Club on July 13, 2021, might strike some folks as extravagant.
Bighorse also liked to travel first-class or business class when he took commercial airline, and at least once upgraded his Vegas hotel room at the Venetian from a $399 room to a room in the “Palazzo” tower that added $226.76 to the room rate for two days. Casino policy bars first-class travel unless other airplane seats are available or employees are traveling internationally.
Because of sloppy reporting – the names of those Bighorse entertained are only on a handful of receipts and those are almost all for guest green fees at the Patriot Golf Club – it is virtually impossible to judge whether most meal and club expenses charged in the 33 months ending in September 2021 were legitimate.
The meal receipts issued by restaurants and clubs simply note how many were seated at the table and no identification is provided anywhere else.
One can surmise, however, that some of the expenses involved children who would have no political clout or business acumen that would benefit Osage Casinos: At the Patriot, Bighorse bought and the casino paid for $40 a month kids’ meal plans, as well as more than $1,000 for children’s golf club sets – two sets purchased in November 2020 and one in July 2021. Kids’ clothing was also purchased at the Patriot.
Some of the expenses occurred on holidays, such as Mothers’ Day and New Year’s Eve; on the latter in 2019, Bighorse hosted three others at the Penthouse at the Summit Club, spending $472 on 26 drinks plus a $140 bottle of Darms Lane Bon Passe cabernet, vintage 2016.
“Let’s pull out a thesaurus for the word ‘repugnant,’” said Congressman Eli Potts, who posted the declassified report online with commentary. “It’s horrible. We had elders who were hungry while they ate beluga caviar – and the board approved it.
“What else do you need to know? Never in my life have I paid that much for a bottle of wine or whisky.”
Congress to hold investigative hearing
In November, Congressman Keene made a motion to hold a congressional investigative hearing on expenses. Jodie Revard, the Congress’ Commerce, Gaming and Land Committee, said a date has yet to be set for the hearing because the committee is awaiting more documents from the Gaming Commission, whose investigation is continuing.
“Every penny belongs to our people,” she said. “This money does not belong to anyone but the people and we all have a responsibility to them.”
Hager, the chair of the gaming board, reiterated Congress is trying to make hay that has long since been baled and put away in the barn.
“Action has already been taken by the board that has produced real results a year ago,” Hager said. “I’m extremely upset about these documents being made public. It’s very harmful.
“Until now, I’ve been laser-focused on things that are going to provide multigenerational prosperity for the Nation. That’s why it is frustrating to bring all this up in the eye of the public, a year later.”
Other executives’ reports: Generally tame
The records released thus far show executives had vastly different attitudes toward their expenses. Where Bighorse would drop thousands of dollars on dinner, drink, polo shirts, golf shoes, first-class travel, private jet flights and pricey room upgrades, Pearson – who was elevated to CEO the same day Bighorse resigned – would eat at Sonic and other low-budget spots while traveling and foot her own bill for such small expenses as water and snacks from hotel minibars, excising them from receipts with a note they were personal expenses. During one trip to Las Vegas, she had a two-day stay at the Cosmopolitan hotel that cost $417.57 – and she removed $66.11 from that tab that she had paid for Fuji water, candy, Cajun mix and other snacks from the minibar.
Steinke, too, appeared pretty tight, although in August 2021 he wrote a check to Osage Casinos for $142.64 to reimburse the business for personal expenses at a CVS pharmacy that was accidentally charged to his casino credit card a month earlier. He had caught similar mistakes on his own and reimbursed the casinos before any inquiry about expenses took place, including a car rental in Colorado in March 2021. He noted, on the day he turned the car in, that Budget had his casino Visa attached to his profile and had mistakenly charged the personal trip to the casinos, charges he paid back. Like Pearson, Steinke also excised charges that he deemed personal – including a $1.25 parking meter charge in June 2021.
Steinke’s reports reveal he occasionally expensed alcoholic drinks – which is allowed by casino policy – but often stopped in at CVS and other stores while traveling to buy snacks like Doritos, Pringles and water. He also appears to be fond of sushi – without avocado.
While Pearson would jot down the names of people she ate with on receipts for meals she expensed, Bighorse almost never did, as required by the casino’s credit card policy. Steinke sometimes neglected to list guests, but he dined out with others infrequently.
Private jet to Vegas
The expense reports of Kasi Stumpff, Bighorse’s executive assistant, were also reviewed by the gaming board and gaming commission – and were released as part of the report.
Stumpff’s report indicates at least some casino executives flew by private jet to the National Indian Gaming Association trade show in Las Vegas in July 2021, an event Chief Standing Bear also attended. The chief said he flew to Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines.
The use of a private jet is rather common in casino circles but has sparked some outcry.
Former gaming board chair Revard said the board was OK with the use of such planes to travel to Osage Beach, Mo., where the Nation is hoping to build another casino at Lake of the Ozarks. By car, the trip takes nearly 10 hours round trip, and the area is not served by any commercial airline. A private jet that holds six passengers costs about $4,000-$6,000 to charter to Osage Beach from Tulsa, and cut the travel time down to about 40 minutes each way.
“It was never intended to go anywhere but Missouri,” Revard said.
In the wake of the controversies nipping at the casinos, private jet flights have ceased.
Stumpff’s expense reports also show she spent $649.75 during the July 2021 trip to the Las Vegas trade show on something called a Nutridrip at the Wynn Hotel spa. The drip is an intravenous vitamin treatment that was particularly popular in 2021 and the receipt says it was provided to Stumpff and Chief Standing Bear’s executive assistant, Sheryl Decker, at a cost of $295 and $270 respectively – and billed it under the heading “employee relations.”
Decker said she had no idea that Stumpff had made an expense claim and added she, Decker, had submitted her own credit card for the treatment. She said she never authorized Stumpff to pick up the charge, and didn’t know it had been charged to the casino until she got a text from Stumpff asking if she could reimburse Stumpff for the expense – which Decker did.
“I don’t know how my name got on her receipt,” Decker said. “Last month she texted me saying she put me on her report and that it came back from research. She said they were asking her to pay it back and she asked if I could pay her back and I did.”
There are other examples of billing mix-ups at Las Vegas hotels: Pearson was mistakenly charged $1,800 at the Cosmopolitan for a damaged television but she disputed those charges and her card was credited back the amount.
No names, no hard and fast conclusions
Because the Bighorse reports fail to list guest names, one cannot tell whether he was using meals to entertain powerbrokers who could benefit the casinos or whether he was going out with buddies or family members.
For instance, the expensed meal at the Summit Club to which Congressman Keene referred as particularly jaw-dropping, was charged across two receipts: One indicated that at 9:10 p.m. on July 13, 2021, the Summit Club charged $1,530.84 for dinner for seven at table 31 in the Penthouse dining room, a dinner that included nine discounted bottles of wine, $403 in food charges and two complimentary birthday desserts. (Bighorse and his wife both had birthdays about a week earlier.) A second bill, time-stamped 11:23 p.m., shows two people were served in the lounge. This time, the bill was $2,684.70 for two Michelob Ultra beers and the four 30-year-old Macallan scotch whiskies at $465 per shot, and $373.60 in service charges.
Almost 24 hours earlier, at 12:18 a.m. on July 19, a Summit Club bill shows a party of seven imbibed $452.43 worth of wine, tequila, bourbon and beer and smoked three $20 Avo Uvezian cigars in the Billiard room. The 24-hour grand total at the Summit Club: $4,667.97, plus tips and service fees.
Other charges are also mysteries without ready explanation that could be normal expenditures but there is no backup documentation to draw that conclusion.
In April 2021, for instance, Bighorse signed off on the purchase of 50 “custom antique brass coins” from Chad Louis Designs, a custom jeweler in Bartlesville, and there are some hotel and restaurant bills from Colorado Springs and Washington, D.C., but no indication of travel to those locations or of the purpose of the trips.
Bighorse declines to speak but is praised by board members
Byron Bighorse declined to talk to the Osage News. He texted, saying that it concerned a personnel matter between himself and the gaming board, “and out of respect for them I have no comment except to say there was no wrongdoing and I wish Osage Casino continued success.”
Hager said much credit for the casinos’ success lies with Bighorse’s leadership, and he said he is pained to see Bighorse’s reputation sullied by the current hubbub.
“Mr. Bighorse led the casinos for several years with clean audits every single year, while delivering year-over-year growth that has funded unprecedented expansion of the Osage Nation government and related services to our people,” Hager said. “I’m always troubled in situations like this when an extraordinary tenure with incredible performance metrics is seemingly tarnished at the end and ultimately casts a shadow on an otherwise stellar career.
“Mr. Bighorse is one of the most decorated Osage business leaders with accolades and awards from several prestigious institutions and organizations which should be a great point of pride for us to see an Osage receive such recognition.
“We need more Osage leaders, not less.”
While no date has been set for the Congress’s investigative hearing on expenses, it will be set as soon as possible said Congresswoman Jodie Revard, the chair of the Commerce, Gaming and Land Committee.
Asked what she hoped the investigation would yield, Speaker Alice Goodfox took a long view: “It will allow for us to determine how we got here, where we go from here, and possibly what other things we may not know of that we need to be aware of.”
Hager expressed the strong sentiment that such investigations would be best left to the Gaming Commission, which is continuing to investigate, according to its director, Elizabeth Hembree, and lawyer, Eugene Bertman.
“The Commission was set up to be a completely independent entity with a sole focus on compliance,” Hager said. “They should have been the path to resolution, but it seems public exposure was the goal and that trumped the best interest of the Nation.”
To read the full report, visit: https://osagenews.org/doc/osage-nation-congressional-report-reclassified-gaming-report/
CORRECTION: The original subhed on this article incorrectly stated the gaming commission report was a year old. The report was delivered to the ON Congress in September. The Osage News regrets the error.