In Snoqualmie, a tribe at war with itself
But behind the glittering facade of Casino Snoqualmie is a tiny tribe facing old troubles: five families with, deep, old conflicts inflamed by the prospect of casino riches, battling for control of the tribe, the casino and its plum jobs.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Its public face is of glamorous people at fancy restaurants, a cigar bar and a dance club in between stints of gambling the night away at Snoqualmie Casino, the region's newest casino. But behind the glittering facade is a tiny tribe facing old troubles: Five families with deep conflicts inflamed by the prospect of casino riches are battling for control of the tribe, the casino and its plum jobs.
The fight burst into the open when Jerry Enick, a hereditary chief of the tribe, overturned a 2007 election, igniting a dispute that culminated in a 2008 federal court case over the banishment of nine Snoqualmie tribal members, including the tribal chairman and several council members. At the time, the banished members cried foul, and Enick's use of his ceremonial title was criticized as an attempt to thrust his family into power.
Now the tables have turned, and Enick, 77, is at the center of a showdown expected Saturday with the tribe's general membership at Evergreen Longhouse in Monroe. On the agenda: stripping Enick of his title.
The latest upheaval has its roots in an ill-fated audit proposed by the tribal council in 2008 in response to concerns raised by casino employees about what they thought were irregularities there, including a stack of money found in a freezer, which is now infamous among tribal members as "The Cold Cash Case."
The money turned out to be tips left by a worker for safekeeping, according to a former employee familiar with the situation. But two council members — Enick family members — who pursued an audit into that and other concerns ended up facing criminal charges from their own government. Now they are fighting to clear their names in federal court after a breakdown of the tribal court system.
The infighting heated up even as revenue from the casino, which opened in 2008, put a big chill on the tribe's high hopes. Instead of rolling in dough, the tribe was mired in $330 million in debt, taken on to build the casino. The tribe swung open the doors right at the bottom of the recession, and in the middle of one of the worst winters in years. The tribe's budget, built on rosier expectations, cratered.
Today the casino is doing better, reports by outside analysts show. The tribe is not required to report actual numbers. Its bond rating has recently improved.
But the infighting at the tribe is intensifying.
At the root of the conflict, Enick family members say, is a fight among competing factions for power and control of the tribe and — ultimately — its casino.
The Snoqualmies were re-recognized in 1999 and immediately moved to open a casino. The tribe has no reservation other than the footprint of the casino, and the tribe's members are scattered all over the region and beyond.
Once the largest tribe in Puget Sound with about 4,000 members, today the tribe numbers about 650. It is controlled by five main families with disagreements that include several disputed elections and court fights for nearly four years.
In the latest turn of events, Arlene Ventura, Enick's sister and a council member since 1994, and her son Kanium, also a member of the council, filed suit this week in U.S. District Court in Seattle against tribal council members and other tribal officials. They want the criminal charges against them in tribal court dismissed and to have their suspensions from the tribal council vacated.
They are two of nine voting members on the tribal council, which in 2008 pursued an audit with an outside accounting firm to look into allegations of irregularities at the casino. The council had passed a resolution to retain the firm in December 2008, stating "the Snoqualmie Tribal council has heard complaints from tribal-member employees and other employees about irregular activities related to gaming operations at the Snoqualmie Casino."
But the council reversed itself two weeks later and canceled the audit. Then, nearly two years later, the council brought criminal charges ranging from official misconduct to conspiracy against the Venturas for pursuing the audit.
The two were charged in September, arraigned in November and suspended from office by the council — a fact they didn't learn, the mother and son say in federal court documents, until they showed up for work at tribal headquarters in Snoqualmie and were charged with criminal trespass.
The two say they have to defend themselves in federal court because they can't get a speedy or fair trial in tribal court, which at the moment has no presiding judge. The judge resigned last month because, she said in her letter of resignation, of the council's interference in the tribal court, such as passage of a resolution removing her from civil matters, including motions affecting the Ventura cases.
The Venturas trace the trouble back to raising questions about operations of the casino, but they say they were wholly within their responsibility to be asking. "I think it is because our family asked too many questions," Arlene Ventura said.
"I just want the tribe to know we did nothing wrong, we are innocent of all charges," said Kanium Ventura, who was elected in September 2007. "It's kind of sad, and frustrating."
Enick this week mailed a seven-page letter to tribal members to defend himself before Saturday's meeting in Monroe. The heaviest fire in the letter was reserved for some of the council members and other tribal officials, stating they do not have the blood quantum or strong enough ancestry required in the tribe's constitution to hold office.
Shelley Burch, chairwoman of the council, did not return calls for comment.
"They are attacking us; they want us out," Enick said of Saturday's agenda and the charges against his sister and nephew. "And if they want us out, we are going to fight back."
Enick said his family never wanted to take control of the tribe. "We just want to see it run right."
The dispute comes at a time when some things at Snoqualmie are stabilizing after a series of setbacks, including the far lower revenue than expected from the casino after it opened in 2008.
Rating agencies this month upgraded $330 million in bonds offered to investors by the tribe in 2007 to build and open the casino. The upgrade was a reward for the restructuring of one of the tribe's loans in December and the improved operating performance by the casino, allowing the tribe to meet its debt payments, according to a Jan. 3 credit opinion by Moody's Investor Service.
The rapid and deep revenue declines at casinos around the country in 2009 and 2010 have ended, Moody's reported, and the forecast is for slight improvement in 2011, the rating agency stated in an analysis last month.
The council in December voted to retain Mike Barozzi, chief executive officer for the casino, the minutes of the meeting show. Back when the tribe was selling bonds to build and open the casino, Barozzi was called out to potential investors as a key member of the management team.
He was hired in September 2006 at a salary of $480,000 per year. He also has been paid bonuses totaling at least $885,000 since 2006, and he receives incentive pay.
Arlene Ventura, 67, said she is saddened to see the tribe in turmoil after fighting so long and hard for recognition, "It's been nothing but chaos these last two years; it's a wonder we get anything done for all the bickering that goes on.
"I just want to get this done and over with and get back to work."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com