Choctaws’ first female chief faces major challenges
Sorting out casino resort finances at the top of priority list for Phyllis Anderson
by Becky Gillette
Published: September 9,2011
It took three elections to do it. But Phyliss J. Anderson, 50, made history Sept. 6 by becoming the first woman elected to be chief of the 10,000-member Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) that owns 35,000 acres of land, three casinos, two hotels and numerous other business operations in the state.
The vote totals not including absentee votes showed Anderson with 2,011 votes, Incumbent Chief Beasley Denson with 1,523 votes, and a third candidate, Shirley Berg, with 63 votes.
“It is always heartening when another first for women is achieved,” said Dr. Marianne Hill, chair of the Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women. “The election of Anderson as chief of the Choctaws in Mississippi is such an event. While first and foremost her election is a tribute to her leadership and abilities, it is also symbolic of a lessening of the barriers facing women.”
Anderson downplayed the role of gender in her election, and has been quoted as saying the election was about leadership and not gender. And, indeed, getting acceptance being the first woman to lead the MBCI is likely the least of her problems. Principal among those is going to be sorting out the tribe’s finances following a FBI raid at the tribe’s casinos in Philadelphia on July 12 where computer hard drives and documents were taken.
Two days after the FBI raid, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the Choctaw Resort Development Enterprise bonds to junk bond status describing the liquidity as weak. Moody’s said the downgrade “reflects Moody’s concern regarding the immediate and longer-term negative implications of this event on the Enterprise’s casino operations and on its access to financing. In particular, the risk of refinancing the upcoming maturity of the company’s $71 million senior secured credit facilities, due on Nov. 4, has escalated significantly. The FBI investigation may also indicate potential internal control weakness and could affect Choctaw’s casino operations in the future and its access to its current credit facilities. Additionally, the recent unresolved change in leadership at the Choctaw Tribe — the owner of the casinos — could further complicate the refinancing process or could impede the Enterprise’s ability to refinance timely or on economical terms.”
The leadership issue, at least, has been settled with the third tribal election this summer. Incumbent Chief Denson got the most votes in the first election on June 14 when he received 1,598 votes from among nine candidates. Anderson received 872 votes in that election. Because Denson didn’t receive 50 percent of the vote, a runoff was held between Denson and Anderson with Anderson getting 1,741 votes compared to Denson at 1,408 votes.
Results of that election were thrown out by the Tribal Council, and a new election ordered. That action by the Tribal Council was reportedly taken because of a report that some voters had been allowed to vote after the polls closed. But considering the 333-vote lead by Anderson, the decision by the Tribal Council requiring a new election was controversial.
In an editorial July 13, the Neshoba Democrat said “the decision to throw out certified election results is a test for their young democracy, open government and the rule of law on the Reservation. While reluctant to speak for the Choctaw people out of respect for their self-governance, we will vehemently defend their right to free, open and honest elections that are the hallmark of democratic rule. …The spectacle of the Tribal Council, as a legislative body, overturning a certified election due to unspecific and vague ‘irregularities’ is unsettling and raises credibility issues.”
The Native American website www.Indianz.com ran an editorial stating: “The Choctaw Tribal Constitution & Bylaws was approved by the U.S. Secretary of Interior in 1945 and in those 66 years hasn’t seen this sort of test.”
While campaigning to be re-elected, Denson had said the tribe’s new Bok Homa Casino in Jones County that opened in December 2010 had been so successful that it had already paid for itself. Later a tribal spokeswoman clarified that statement referred “only to construction costs.”
Moody’s had cited a $10-million loan for the Bok Homa Casino when it downgraded the bond rating for the Choctaw’s resort. Anderson said during the campaign she felt there was a lot of misinformation about Bok Homa Casino, and that the current administration had not been truthful about the Tribe’s debt. She called for transparency in government and accurate reporting of financial assets and debts.
Denson said the FBI warrants were seeking information from Mercury Gaming Group of Atlanta, Ga., and its marketing company, the Titan Agency. Anderson had campaigned that she would cancel the contracts with those two businesses if elected. She also campaigned on the theme of restoring trust and working for the prosperity of all tribal members — not just for a selected group. She said members were concerned about having adequate healthcare, job security and fair treatment.
Both tribal and non-tribal employees at Pearl River Resort could be concerned about job security. Those businesses have lost top leadership recently including Bryce Warren, the general manager of Bok Homa Casino, Pearl River Resort Chief Operating Officer Susan O’Connell and Pearl River Resort Chief Financial Officer Paul Simon.
On Sept. 2, Pearl River Resort announced the appointment of Alex Billy as the new general manager of Bok Homa Casino.
“I’m very pleased to have such a talented, experienced leader as Alex Billy join our senior management team,” said Paul Harvey, president and CEO of Pearl River Resort, and former executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “We look forward to continued success at Bok Homa Casino under his leadership.”
During the campaign Denson said the FBI investigation wasn’t a concern because resort’s finances had been audited by an independent firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers. But that company resigned, and is no longer the tribe’s auditor. The Tribe has hired BDO USA as its new auditor.
Gaming across the country has been hard hit by the recession, and the Pearl River Resort casinos are no exception. Revenues are down, and there have been layoffs. Some analysts now believe it was a mistake to build the second casino in Philadelphia, the Golden Moon, because it wasn’t justified by demand and put the tribe deeply in debt.
There was also scandal about the tribe’s relationship with Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the expenditure of more than $10 million in lobbying and political contributions of $1.3 million during the tenure of long-time Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin, who was defeated for re-election by Denson in 2007. Martin passed away in 2010. Abramoff served three years in prison after being convicted for mail fraud and conspiracy.
Anderson, who served two terms on the Tribal Council before being elected chief, was quoted by the AP as stating she wants to reassure members of the tribe there is still hope.
“Despite all the challenges we are facing with the FBI, the Moody’s downgrade, resignation of our auditing firm and now this third tribal chief election, it’s still important to focus on our future and the successes we will build,” she said.
Pearl River Resort reportedly employs up to 4,500 people at the three casinos, two hotels, golf courses and other resort amenities. That makes it one of the biggest employers in the state.
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