Lost Harrah's

Gamblers and staffers at the Ak-Chin casino all celebrated when Herminia Rodriguez hit a $330,000 slot-machine jackpot. Then the tribe decided the machine had malfunctioned.

At precisely 6:42 p.m. on October 11, Herminia Rodriguez struck it rich. Or so she thought.

The 64-year-old Phoenix grandmother was playing the "Quartermania" slot machine at Harrah's Ak-Chin, a popular casino about 40 minutes southeast of Phoenix. With her husband, Chico, seated next to her, Rodriguez punched the spin button and hoped for the best.

A security camera captured the moment from above: When the three reels stopped seven seconds later, each read "Quartermania Wild"--the big jackpot.

The prize was $330,152.13--the second-largest Quartermania win in Arizona history.

For Rodriguez, an ex-migrant worker who never has had much money, the feeling was beyond electric.

"It's like you died and were born again," she says, tears welling. "Inside, you say, 'Thank you, God.' I felt warm from head to toe. I started thinking about Teresa, my granddaughter, and how I could help her now."

Teresa Jaimes, 22, suffers from lupus and renal failure, and, her grandmother says, is likely to need a kidney transplant. Beyond that, Teresa's health insurance for various reasons has been in danger of lapsing.

Casino officials announced the winning amount over the public-address system, causing a buzz among the Saturday-night throng. Dozens of players rushed over, just to be close to the lucky lady and her lucky slot machine.

A worker hung balloons on the winning slot machine; another photographed the couple in front of it.

But the Rodriguezes' euphoria would be short-lived. Just before midnight--about five hours after Herminia hit the jackpot--she got dreadful news.

"It was determined that a malfunction did in fact occur," casino shift manager Michael Thompson wrote that night. "All machines state clearly that a machine malfunction will invalidate the jackpot. We are unable to pay Mrs. Rodriguez the $330,152.13 because of this malfunction . . ."

Rodriguez had the presence of mind to hustle her husband of 36 years out of the casino. "I had to before he got us into trouble; he was so mad," she says.

The security videotape chronicles the events of the evening: Clearly, the machine wasn't running properly at times during the hour that Herminia Rodriguez fed quarters into it.

About a half-hour before Rodriguez hit the jackpot, for instance, the reels wouldn't stop spinning until a casino employee reset the machine.

But the tape shows the employee gave Rodriguez the go-ahead to resume play on the machine. This, say gaming-industry experts contacted by New Times, should have cinched the payoff.

"Putting the machine back into play would seem to expressly say that the casino thought everything was okay," says Arizona Gaming Department director Gary Husk.

But three months have passed since the tumultuous evening, and the Rodriguezes haven't seen a penny.

On November 10, tribal gaming agency chairman Leo Thomas wrote to Herminia Rodriguez that he'd "reviewed the disputed jackpot allegedly won by you," and backed the casino's decision not to pay.

The couple contacted Phoenix attorney Charles Buri, a former director of the Arizona Lottery.

"The casino could have just shut the machine down," says Buri. "Instead, they told her to keep feeding the slot. You'd think they'd want to do the right thing, to pay Herminia. But they're not giving any indication that they will."

Robert Mulryne, executive director of the Ak-Chin tribal gaming agency, spoke only generally about slot-machine malfunctions. "If you look at any gaming machine in any casino," he says, "you'll see where it says a malfunction voids a win."

Mulryne is asked what happens when a casino repairs a slot machine to its satisfaction, then puts it back into service.

"And then put it back into service?" he replied. "You'll have to address that question to the casino operator [Harrah's]."

Ralph Berry, a spokesman for Harrah's based in the corporation's headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, said he hadn't heard about the incident.

"We'd just as soon pay everything off in a situation like the one you've described," Berry said. "But we look at things on a case-by-case basis."

Tom Paolella, deputy chief of the Nevada Gaming Commission, arbitrates situations such as these in his state.

"The casino can decide to pay at any time, and they do sometimes even if they disagree with us," Paolella said. "We have a rule here that the casino is to shut down a machine any time there's a question if it's working right or not. The gaming industry can get a black eye in something like this."

Rick Sorenson of International Game Technology--the Reno, Nevada-based firm that makes Quartermania machines--says malfunctions occur "very, very, very rarely. In 10 years of operation all over the country, I think we've had four incidents of this kind. It's unfortunate to have to void a win, but that does happen."

By written agreement, the Ak-Chin casino is supposed to notify the Arizona Gaming Department immediately when someone hits a jackpot of that size. But records show the state wasn't told of the Rodriguez case for more than two days, after the machine was back in service and an independent examination was impossible.

Husk, the nominal overseer of the state's Indian-gaming industry, says this is the largest disputed jackpot in memory. But the situation doesn't surprise him.

"I don't think the public understands that they're in a different world inside an Indian casino," Husk says. "The concept of consumer protection on that turf isn't a priority. The concept of 'We're sovereign, nobody tells us our business,' is everything. It's like having another planet in our neighborhood."

It's a lucrative planet, according to financial reports obtained by New Times. Since opening in December 1994, the Ak-Chin casino has been managed by Harrah's, one of the gaming industry's most powerful companies.

In Arizona and elsewhere, the exact financial arrangements between Indian tribes and the firms who run their gaming operations remain secret. Like most tribes, the Ak-Chin consider that information nobody's business but its own. And the compact the tribe signed with the State of Arizona in 1993 allows it to keep things that way.

As a political concession to the Indians' status as "independent sovereigns," the Arizona Gaming Department won't release the numbers it does get from the tribes.

But documents filed by Harrah's with the federal government indicate the Ak-Chin casino is a shining star in the firm's constellation. According to the company's third-quarter 1997 filing, Harrah's 46.7 percent increase in management-fee income over 1996 "was led by record performance at Harrah's Ak-Chin."

During that quarter, Harrah's netted about $3 million in fees from the Arizona tribe, which reportedly pays Harrah's 30 percent of its net revenue. If the firm's third-quarter figures were extrapolated for all of 1997, the Ak-Chin netted more than $35 million in 1997. (Each tribe pays the state $500 annually per slot machine. That fee goes toward the Arizona Gaming Department's budget. What's left over at the end of a year reverts to the tribes.)

That the Ak-Chin--a small band of about 600 members--is awash in money hasn't escaped Herminia Rodriguez's attention.

"We're not rich like they are, but I don't do wrong to people," she says. "I have my word, and I always think other people are going to go by their word, too."

The lure of Harrah's Ak-Chin casino has proved powerful since it opened three years ago. The attraction isn't solely the fantasy of finding fortune at a slot machine, in the 500-seat Bingo Hall or in the Keno parlor.

The 72,000-square-foot complex cost about $25 million to build. Harrah's arranged the financing, which, industry reports say, the Ak-Chin repaid within a year.

Someone once dubbed it the "Taj Mahal" of Arizona's 15 Indian casinos. Located 17 miles west of I-10 off Queen Creek Road, Harrah's Ak-Chin looks like a modern desert mosque. The stucco buildings are clean and airy, the employees are friendly, and the alcohol flows freely.

With a state-imposed limit of 475 slots, there usually are more gamblers than machines available at Ak-Chin. (In January 1997, the Ak-Chin and Gila River casinos sued Gary Husk and the Arizona Gaming Department, claiming the state overcounts video-gaming machines.)

One of Ak-Chin's popular slot machines is Quartermania, a two-coin quarter game that occasionally pays off in a big way.

On December 30, the Stardust casino in Las Vegas reported a $1.43 million Quartermania winner. Someone collected $1.83 million on October 3 at the Boomtown casino in Mississippi. The Desert Diamond casino holds the Arizona record, with a $375,751 payoff 10 days after the Rodriguez fiasco.

Though payoffs of that magnitude obviously are rare, they're sweet music to folks such as Herminia and Chico Rodriguez.

"We're pretty normal people," she says. "We work, we have family, we try to have fun once in a while."

Herminia Rodriguez was born in Texas to migrant workers in 1933. She says she worked the fields harvesting cotton, sugar beets and tomatoes from the age of about 8. Her formal schooling ended after the first grade.

"I can read anything you put in front of me," she says, "but I can't write."
A near-fatal car accident in 1980 left her unable to work full-time, and she collects $484 monthly in Social Security disability.

Though her life hasn't been easy, Herminia Rodriguez says she's always counted her blessings. Her faith, however, has been severely tested in recent years, and by more than the standoff at Ak-Chin.

"When Teresa got sick, and with her money problems, it makes you wonder why," Rodriguez says, referring to her ill granddaughter and problems with the young woman's health insurance.

On the morning of October 11, she and her husband held a yard sale at their home. They decided that the proceeds--$140--would cover a session of gambling at Ak-Chin.

If they won, they'd give the money to Teresa as a present. If they lost, well, Herminia Rodriguez says, then they lost.

"If you go to a casino hoping to get money to pay the rent, the pressure will be too much," she explains. "If you go to hope for the best and not lose too much, you'll be okay."

The couple drove to Ak-Chin that afternoon, and headed to the Quartermania machines. Herminia Rodriguez says the casino was crowded, with almost every slot machine in use. She gave her husband less than half of the money--"I'm luckier than he is"--and they started to play.

The Rodriguezes' luck ran the usual gamut--they lost a little, won a little.
Sometime before 5:45 p.m., according to the casino's videotape, Herminia Rodriguez started playing Quartermania machine 2381.

The tape shows that, at 5:47, the reels did not stop after Rodriguez spun them. A casino technician came by about 10 minutes later, fiddled with the machine, and put it back into service at 6:02, with Herminia Rodriguez seated in front of it.

"She said to go on, everything was fine," Rodriguez recalls. "I think I was about $100 ahead, and I was asking my husband if I should get my money out. But he was a little tipsy and wanted to go on for a while. He said maybe I'd get real lucky."

The tribal gaming agency sent a copy of the videotape to Gaming Laboratories Inc. (GLI), a consulting firm based in Toms River, New Jersey. GLI's president, James Maida, issued his minute-by-minute analysis on November 10.

He notes in a 6:29 p.m. entry, ". . . The player to the right of [Herminia Rodriguez] begins banging the machine on either side with open hands."

Maida seems to be suggesting that the "banging" may have caused Rodriguez's machine to malfunction. But the tape shows that the other player tapped on her own machine, not Rodriguez's.

At 6:30, the tape shows, something does go awry with the Quartermania machine: Most important, the "progressive" meter atop the machine--which shows the running total--stops tabulating at $330,152.13.

That's the amount Herminia Rodriguez thought she'd won 12 minutes later; jackpots on nearby Quartermania machines continued to mount during that time.

By 6:35, Rodriguez's slot isn't working at all. She puts her coins in a bucket, and hands them to her husband at 6:39.

From Maida's report: "[Chico Rodriguez] . . . keeps his back to the camera with coins in front as he walks away to the left. This was, in my opinion, an odd movement."

Actually, it doesn't appear at all "odd." But the implication is that the Rodriguezes somehow manipulated the machine into a jackpot. (Maida did not return a call requesting comment on his report.)

"Based on this videotape and the supporting documents received by the Ak-Chin Tribal Gaming Agency," Maida concludes, "it is our opinion that this machine was malfunctioning at the time the 'jackpot' occurred."

The report's tone sickens Herminia Rodriguez.
"They make it sound like we're some kind of criminal," she says. "I don't know what they're getting at. We didn't even know they were filming us. We were just gambling, and I thought I'd got lucky."

That was at 6:42 p.m.
After the ado--the balloons, the public-address announcement, the slaps on the back--Herminia and Chico Rodriguez ate, gratis, and awaited word of how they were to be paid.

It would be hours before a casino employee finally told the couple their win had been negated. The couple drove home in a funk, slept restlessly, then awoke as usual to clean a Sunday school. They were stewing all the while.

"I knew it was an injustice, but I didn't know what to do," she says. "So we got ahold of Mr. Buri and asked him to help."

Charlie Buri has a fine reputation, but he's no miracle worker. The attorney knew he faced an uphill struggle after he read the tribe's terse November 10 rejection letter, signed by tribal gaming agency chairman Leo Thomas.

But Thomas didn't tell the whole story.
He failed to reveal that, on October 20, the State of Arizona had found Harrah's Ak-Chin guilty of a "compact violation" in how it handled the Quartermania machine after the disputed jackpot.

"They didn't call us to perform an independent evaluation of the machine," Gary Husk says. "Instead, they made it impossible for us to determine the validity of the machine."

Explains Michael Mauser, the state gaming department's manager of machine compliance: "We can't tell whether the casino or anyone repaired or tampered with this particular machine. For one thing, they didn't call us in a timely way. And we've never gotten a report from anyone that says what they did. If we had been afforded the paperwork, our people would have answers. But we don't."

In November, Buri requested copies of everything the tribe had relied upon in arriving at its decision against Herminia Rodriguez.

On December 16, he received a package from the Ak-Chin gaming agency's attorney. It included James Maida's report and a few other items. But the other attorney said that, under the compact, he didn't have to turn over such materials as the Quartermania software that allegedly had failed.

Buri complained bitterly in a December 19 letter to the Ak-Chin's Leo Thomas:

". . . Important matters of this sort deserve a full and complete investigation. To allow anything less is unfair to the players who frequent the Ak-Chin casino. Moreover, the continued success of the Tribe's gaming industry hinges on the Agency's fairness. If players perceive they are being cheated or treated unfairly, they will take their gaming dollars elsewhere."

Buri points out that, while the casino was quick to deny Herminia Rodriguez her jackpot, it never even offered to reimburse her for money she poured into the Quartermania machine while it supposedly was broken.

The compact between the state and the Ak-Chin allows tribal gaming officials to reconsider their decisions at a hearing--but only if they chose to. Under any circumstance, "the decision of the Tribal Gaming Office shall be final and binding upon the patron and the [casino] and shall not be subject to judicial review, dispute resolution or other legal action."

That one-sided process comes as a shock to Nevada's Tom Paolella. He says that, in his state, a player denied a jackpot can take a grievance to U.S. District Court.

"I don't know how you can take away someone's rights to get an independent hearing," Paolella says, "but I guess that it's different with the tribes and their sovereign immunity."

The Ak-Chin gaming agency has agreed to hear Herminia Rodriguez's appeal January 20. The agency's Robert Mulryne says it marks the first scheduled hearing on an alleged machine malfunction since the casino opened.

That the cards may be stacked against Rodriguez is apparent in the location of the agency's office--Harrah's Ak-Chin casino.

She claims the mission to collect her jackpot has taken on larger significance than just the $330,152.13.

"It's the principle," Rodriguez says. "Why did they take my driver's license and Social Security number that night? Why did they give me balloons? Why they make me believe I won? I honestly thought everything was honest down there. But it's not."

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

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