LEDYARD, Conn. — Once the envy of Indian Country for its billion-dollar casino empire, the tribe that owns the Foxwoods Resort Casino has been struggling through a financial crisis and pursuing more revenue from an unlikely source: U.S. government grants.
The money provided annually to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation through the Interior Department and the Department of Health and Human Services has risen over the past five years to more than $4.5 million, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show. One former tribal employee says department leaders were encouraged to offset dwindling resources by seeking more federal grants.
The Pequots, who once distributed stipends exceeding $100,000 annually to adult members, are not alone among gaming tribes seeking more federal aid. Several, including the owner of Foxwoods’ rival Connecticut casino, the Mohegan Sun, say they have been pursuing more grants — a trend that critics find galling because the law that gave rise to Indian casinos was intended to help tribes become financially self-sufficient.
“The whole purpose of the 1988 law which authorized Indian casinos was to help federally-recognized tribes raise money to run their governments by building casinos on their reservations,” said Robert Steele, a former Congressman from Connecticut. “I would argue strongly that federal money was meant for struggling tribes. Certainly the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans couldn’t under any circumstances be put in that category.”
Thomas Weissmuller, who was chief judge of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court until 2011, said that near the end of his tenure the tribal council said they had distributed too much money to members and urged department leaders to pursue more federal grants. He said there was resistance from some council members, who raised questions about the effects on sovereignty, but he was personally encouraged to pursue grants by officials including the tribal chairman, Rodney Butler.
Weissmuller said he was not comfortable seeking such assistance for the tribal court system because most of the issues it dealt with were related to the casino, which is essentially a commercial enterprise.
“A billion-dollar gaming enterprise should fully fund the tribal government,” said Weissmuller, who said he was forced out of the job by tribal officials .
The Pequots’ reversal of fortunes began around 2008, when Foxwoods completed a major, costly expansion with a 30-story MGM Grand-branded casino just as the recession began to show its teeth. The following year the tribe defaulted on debt exceeding $2 billion.
Since then, the tribe of some 900 people in rural southeastern Connecticut has ended its member stipends. The Pequots have kept some other benefits in place, covering payments for members pursuing higher education and offering supplemental pay for tribal members taking entry-level jobs at the casino.
The federal grants provided to the Pequots through the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, meanwhile, rose from $1 million in 2008 to $2.7 million in 2011, with partial records for 2012 showing $1.7 million in grants for the year. Grants provided to the Pequots through the Indian Health Service, a division of Health and Human Services, increased gradually from $1.7 million in 2008 to $1.9 million in 2012. That money is to support health care services such as community health, nutrition, substance abuse treatment and pharmacy services.