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Casino jackpot went to investors

Mohegan group was paid $369m Middleborough deal is sought

Email|Print| Text size + By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / December 16, 2007

A coterie of casino executives who helped the Mohegan of Connecticut build one of the most successful tribal casinos in the world has been paid $369 million in resort and casino proceeds during the last six years - slightly more than has been received by the entire 1,700-member tribe.

It is the kind of bonanza that was supposed to be prohibited by the federal Indian Gaming Act when it was passed 20 years ago, say some US senators and federal regulators.

But the Mohegan Sun investors - led by Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman - found legal ways around provisions intended to make sure most casino benefits went primarily to tribes. And those loopholes remain open after a massive lobbying blitz by the $25 billion Indian gaming industry.

Since 2001, the industry and its lobbyists have repeatedly defeated efforts to tighten rules and increase transparency. In the industry's latest victory, it crushed an Indian Gaming Act amendment championed in 2006 by Senator John McCain, a Republican of Arizona. McCain's bill would have prevented huge payouts like those received by Kerzner and Wolman. McCain has said the defeat of his bill was a triumph for special interests.

"Their lobbyists are very powerful, and they're pretty hard to fight," McCain said in an interview last month. "I was very disappointed."

That lobbying success now is reverberating in Massachusetts, where Kerzner and Wolman have most recently set their sights on a tract of land in Middleborough. Just six months after McCain's bill was defeated, Kerzner and Wolman signed a deal with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to build a $1 billion casino on the rural site.

That contract is subject to the same rules that allowed Kerzner and Wolman to make more money than the Mohegan tribe in recent years. Even Governor Deval Patrick has been unable to find out - despite requests for information - how much Kerzner, Wolman, and other investors in the Middleborough casino negotiations would get in the deal.

"We believe strongly that the financial deal between the tribe and their backers should be made public," said Joseph Landolfi, a spokesman for Patrick, who is interested in courting the developers and tribe if he wins legislative approval of his plan for three state-licensed casinos.

Kerzner and Wolman declined to be interviewed. A lawyer for their partnership - known as Trading Cove - in response to written questions from the Globe, said that the developers took "significant risks" in its investments in the Mohegan casino that justified the returns Trading Cove received. The Mohegan tribe owns all the equity in the casino, said Philip C. Korologos, the lawyer, so the financial benefit to the tribe will "be multiples of any amounts that Trading Cove has received."

But some Mohegan tribal members are resentful of the Trading Cove deal.

"It was supposed to be for the tribe, not outsiders," Carlisle Fowler, the Mohegan former tribal treasurer, said of Mohegan Sun in an interview last week.

And some Mashpee Wampanoag tribal members say they are suspicious about the deal their leaders have struck with the same investors in Middleborough - a deal they have not been shown. Documents filed with the tribe's pending federal application for reservation status at the site do not disclose financial terms.

"They don't let us see anything," said Michelle Fernandes, a member of the tribe. "It's a big secret."

Frank Sinatra once described Kerzner as "the world's best saloon keeper." The occasion was the opening of Sun City, the casino and resort developed by Kerzner in South Africa. One of the world's most successful casino moguls, Kerzner also developed the Atlantis resort in The Bahamas.

He landed in Montville, Conn., in 1994, enticed there by Wolman, a fellow South African then managing a Days Inn hotel in nearby Mystic. Wolman had pieced together a deal that he hoped would rival the already up-and-running Foxwoods casino, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Indians and an instant success when it opened in 1992.

At the time, investors in Indian casinos received compensation by managing the facilities until tribes gained enough experience to do so themselves. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, passed by Congress in 1988, the maximum pay the investors could receive was 30 percent of gambling profits annually for five years. After that, investors could get no further payments.

Mohegan Sun opened in 1996, the second casino in New England. In its first full year of operation, Mohegan Sun had $611 million in gross revenues. Its immediate success spurred a vast expansion, including development of a 1,200-room luxury hotel, overseen by Trading Cove and completed in 2002.

By then, Trading Cove had negotiated an expanded contract. The new agreement was based on gross revenue, rather than net revenue: It not only gave Trading Cove a nickel of every dollar spent at Mohegan Sun's multiple casinos, but also on all spending by patrons at the hotel, restaurants, shops, and auditorium. The contract spans 2000 to 2015.

The National Indian Gaming Commission called the amount of money the Mohegan tribe was promising to pay Trading Cove "egregious," and clearly above the legal limit, but concluded in 1998 it lacked the authority to stop the new contract.

That's because, under a loophole in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, investors could avoid caps on their returns by calling their deals anything other than a management contract, usually a consulting contract.

Currently, the annual payment to Trading Cove from the Mohegan Sun is about $75 million. Over the last six fiscal years, Trading Cove received $368.9 million, compared with $367.5 million in casino profits distributed to the tribe.

By the time the agreement expires in 2015, total receipts for Trading Cove may exceed $1 billion, according to financial projections.

Mohegan tribal chairman Bruce "Two Dogs" Bozsum last week said he was not familiar with the deal made by his predecessors, one in which - according to public documents - Trading Cove put about $10 million into the original venture and provided a guarantee for about $90 million in bonds sold on Wall Street. Bozsum did, however, say that Trading Cove took a risk in backing the tribe in the 1990s.

In the late 1990s, there were 297 Indian tribes in the casino or bingo business nationally, taking in $8.4 billion a year. But the industry exploded, fueled in part by investors growing confidence they could outflank federal regulators to reap big profits. Today there are 419 tribes, doing more $26 billion a year in business.

And the vast majority of deals between investors and tribe are now made as something other than management contracts and therefore outside of regulatory review, according to the US Department of Interior's Inspector General.

As the industry grew, so have the sums that it spends on lobbyists in Washington, especially lobbyists who are former staffers for key regulatory agencies, and, in the case of Trading Cove, at least one lobbyist connected to Massachusetts politicians.

The Indian casino industry has spent $100 million for lobbying since 2001, according to the Center for Responsible Politics, a public interest group that compiles lobbying and campaign contribution data.

Trading Cove has spent almost $1 million since 2002 for lobbyists, including $495,000 since 2003 for lobbyist A. Bradford Card, managing partner of Dutko Worldwide. Card is the brother of Andrew Card, the former Bush administration White House chief of staff who in the 1980s served in the Massachusetts Legislature before running unsuccessfully for governor. When asked about his role, Card asked for written questions, but never responded to them.

Trading Cove is also represented by lobbyist Virginia Boylan, a former counsel to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and now a partner at Drinker Biddle, another powerful firm. Trading Cove fees to Boylan's firm have totaled $460,000 since 2002.

In the last three years, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe spent $520,000 for Washington lobbyists. Among them is Steven C. Schwadron, former chief of staff to US Representative William D. Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts. Most of the lobbying was connected to winning federal recognition for the tribe, but now includes "legislation and policies relevant to newly recognized tribes," Senate records say.

Trading Cove, through its lawyer, Korologos, said its goal is to "continue to oppose in lawful and legitimate ways any legislation in Congress" that interfere with tribal rights.

Len Wolman and and his brother Mark receive about $10 million a year from Mohegan Sun, according to publicly available records.

By 2015, the Wolman brothers' receipts are projected to exceed $100 million each from the Mohegan deal, out of the projected $1 billion. Kerzner's company is expected to receive about $500 million.

Meanwhile, divided among its 1,700 members, the Mohegan tribe's current share of profits works out to about $38,000 a year each. The tribe declined to say how it distributes its earnings.

When the details of the Trading Cove's 15-year contract first emerged in 2001 in the Globe, McCain vowed changes.

A bill he introduced in 2005 would have made sure that outside investors be firmly subject to the 30 percent cap.

Dennis J. Whittlesey, a longtime Indian casino lawyer based in Washington, said McCain's bill was not well-received by casino executives.

"A number of major developers were extremely concerned and made substantial moves to oppose it," he said.

The McCain bill was voted out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in March 2006 with a unanimous recommendation for passage by the full Senate.

But it died two months later, with no further discussion.

Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, reported that seven senators had put anonymous holds on the bill, meaning a vote of 60 senators was required to release it.

Some federal regulators continue to press for reforms. Earl E. Devaney, the US Department of Interior's inspector general, said in an interview in Washington that an overhaul of the Indian Gaming Act is still needed.

Without reforms, he said, "investors are going to have the leverage to demand and get higher and higher amounts of casino profits.

"The return they get on their investment now is huge."

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

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