SLOTS OF ALLEGATIONSTHE SALT RIVER TRIBE IS AWASH IN INTRIGUE OVER ITS GAMING FUTURE
Gambling on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which borders Scottsdale, could generate $450 million annually, projections show. At this point, however, projections are all anyone can make. No casinos have been approved or built. The tribe hasn't decided whether to run the casinos itself or to hire an outside manager.
Furthermore, the state has yet to agree to allow gambling, and Governor J. Fife Symington III has vowed not to sign any more gaming compacts with tribes.
But one former insider suspects that the state and the tribe have been secretly negotiating a gaming contract for months. Bob Chiago, who was recently fired as the tribe's community manager, suggests that Symington's public pronouncements are merely a bluff, orchestrated to get the state a cut of the proceeds from Salt River casinos.
The high-stakes intrigue already has cost Chiago his job and deepened a political rift on the reservation.
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
2016 Charles Schwab Cup Championship
TicketsWed., Nov. 9, 9:00am
One side stands by Ivan Makil, the tribe's smooth and elusive pro-business, pro-development president. He is credited with raising the tribe's standard of living by bringing in the $247 million outer loop freeway and the $110 million Pavilions shopping center.
On the other side are Makil's long-standing enemies on the council who have tirelessly politicked against him. They believe Makil profited personally from the business deals--an allegation Makil has repeatedly denied.
Throw into this volatile mix Station Casinos, a Nevada-based gaming company that wants to manage the tribe's gaming operations. With the approval of the Makil faction, Station last year financed a secret "preview center" containing models of casinos. The preview center, in an industrial building on the reservation, was accessible to prospective developers.
Finally, add Robert Arthur, a retired Scottsdale cop turned private detective. Arthur says Station Casinos paid him to guard the preview center and protect it from "espionage" by other gaming companies.
But Arthur did much more than that. In April, he secretly taped Bob Chiago, and turned those tapes over to the tribal council, which promptly fired Chiago for undisclosed reasons. Last week, the anti-Makil faction pushed through a council resolution calling for the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate Chiago's firing.
This is the story Arthur tells about how he came to spy on Chiago: A shady character comes into Arthur's office in February 1994 and wants to buy detective supplies. The character mentions that Chiago soon will be employed by the tribe, and will be able to "control" gaming on the reservation. Sure enough, Chiago leaves his $115,000 post in Washington, D.C., for the $56,000-a-year community manager's job, which carries some gaming-development oversight.
When Arthur learns of Chiago's new job, he tells Station about the character who had predicted Chiago's hiring. Station, Arthur says, sees no threat. So Arthur disguises himself as an official from a competing gaming company, wires himself up and tapes Chiago working out a deal for a six-figure consulting job with Arthur. But Chiago says he'd have to quit his job at the tribe before he collects the bucks.
Arthur insists neither Station nor the Makil faction of the tribe paid him for this sleuthing--he did it for himself. Arthur won't allow New Times to hear the tapes. "It seems to me it's not in my best interest to release the tapes," he explains, adding that they might incriminate him.
Chiago, during a lengthy interview with New Times, says he quit his job as director of the National Indian Education Council and moved back to the reservation because as a Republican appointee, he was expected to make way for a Democrat. He did not move back to infiltrate the tribe's gaming operations, he says.
But Chiago admits he did try to work out a consulting job for himself, because his job security seemed shaky. He says Arthur probably got the negotiating on tape. But Chiago says he would not have accepted the "consulting fees" until after he left his job with the tribe.
Since his firing, Chiago has allied himself with the anti-Makil faction. On May 31, Chiago wrote Alfretta Antone, a longtime political enemy of Makil, to give his version of recent events.
In his nine-page letter, which has been widely distributed, Chiago suggests that a conspiracy to oust him may have been drummed up by Makil, a handful of consultants and Station Casinos. He says Station wanted him out because he was impeding its efforts to obtain a management contract. Makil denies those allegations.
Chiago says he and the anti-Makil faction on the tribal council favor in-house tribal management of the gaming operations.
So far, no one on either side has accused anybody of breaking the law. But many community members are suspicious of their leaders, largely because the tribe has no public-records law that would provide constituents with credible information. The atmosphere of secrecy and innuendo on the reservation is perpetuated by the council itself, which often decides key issues in closed-door "executive sessions." The council also balks at disclosing critical financial data, such as annual financial reports. And community members wonder whether any tribal officials have received gifts or consulting fees from any of the gaming companies.
In his letter, Chiago also theorizes that Symington and Makil have worked out a deal that will allow the state to get a cut of Salt River's gaming revenue.
After the the tribe announced in May that it intended to build two casinos, complete with 700 slot machines, Symington, citing a federal court decision, announced he would not sign any more gaming agreements with Arizona tribes.
Symington has signed 16 such compacts with other tribes, but none of them grants the state a penny from profits generated by some 5,000 slot machines now in operation.
Which is exactly why Symington won't sign a compact with Salt River--the way Chiago sees it. According to Chiago's theory, Symington wants the state to get a cut in Salt River's gambling profits. So does the pro-Makil faction.
But because the anti-Makil faction on the tribal council favors a traditional compact with the state, it was necessary for Symington to announce that he would sign no more traditional compacts, Chiago says. This would have the effect of pushing the tribal council toward a profit-sharing agreement with Symington, he says. According to Chiago, Symington and Makil may have used Dick Mallery, a prominent Phoenix attorney, as their go-between. Mallery's son-in-law is an executive in Miss Karen's Yogurt, 51 percent of which is owned by the tribe. Chiago says Mallery obtained tribal gambling revenue projections from a tribal employee.
Mallery denies he brokered any deals between Symington and the tribe, but refuses to say whether he obtained tribal revenue projections, which reportedly put the annual gross at about $450 million. Makil denies the charges of working behind the scenes with Symington and claims no knowledge of Mallery having access to tribal revenue projections.
The Governor's Office did not return telephone calls.
Chiago says he never meant for his letter to be widely distributed, and that his suspicions are just that, suspicions.
Which is pretty much the way a lot of folks at Salt River view their government.
"Something is wrong," a woman told the tribal council at a meeting last week. "I used to look at the entire council for wisdom. You speak of God and family values, but gaming is on the top of your list.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.