Hartford Courant on 19 August 2010
Foxwoods' Bubble Has Burst
Ten years ago today, I faced roughly 1,000 people in Ledyard who had come to hear me discuss my book, ``Without Reservation,'' a critical examination of the federal recognition of the Mashantucket Pequots and the opening of Foxwoods Resort Casino. There were TV cameras, print reporters, movie producers, politicians, lots of spirited locals and a few friendly Native Americans, along with some vocal Mashantucket Pequot tribal members and their lawyer who had come to challenge what I had written.
I had been on “60 Minutes” saying the tribe was a fraud, prompting the tribe’s chairman to call me a “damn lunatic” and an “Indian hater.” The tribe brought in O.J. Simpson’s criminal defense lawyer Johnny Cochran to consider suing me and my publisher for libel and slander. The tribe’s medicine woman had even put a spell on me.
Ah, the good old days!
It’s easy to forget that then it was a little like swearing in church to call the Pequots phonies. Nowadays, I rarely run into anyone who can keep a straight face while talking about the owners of Foxwoods as a legitimate Indian tribe. That debate long ago left the reservation. Now the talk is all about money, specifically the tribe’s lack of it.
The tribe’s finances are looking more and more like a house of cards. Earlier this year, the tribe announced that, as of Dec. 31, it would discontinue paying annual six-figure stipends to adult tribal members. In other words, it no longer pays to be a Pequot.
There are bigger problems. Last year the Pequots entered into a forbearance agreement with a banking syndicate that agreed not to take action against the tribe for its delinquency on a reported $2 billion in debt. But a few weeks ago, Bloomberg reported that Foxwoods’ debt default was at $1.45 billion and Standard & Poor’s placed the tribe on a credit watch while cutting the rating for the tribe to CCC, which is a junk bond rating.
Think about that for minute. The owners of the biggest casino can’t pay their bills. We know how the tribe treats gamblers who fail to pay their gambling debts. They are denied future credit, banished from the casino and sometimes even hauled into court. Now it’s the tribe’s turn to beg for mercy.
The tribe and its sycophants blame this situation on the economic downturn. Bologna! Greed is bleeding the golden goose. Excessive expansion is the problem. Biggest was never big enough. Earlier this year, the tribe’s new chairman Rodney Butler suggested lowering the state’s legal gambling age from 21 to 18 to increase slot revenue. The idea sunk fast.
I get it when the tribe pushes its addictive product. But state officials shouldn’t be pushers. Not long ago, state Comptroller Nancy Wyman, while flattering the tribe for its vision, reportedly joked that she often talks to senior citizens who visit Foxwoods and tells them, “If you’re going to gamble, could you go to the slot machines?” Not funny. For a senior citizen, slots are the most addictive device in a casino.
But here’s the rub. Connecticut hitched its fiscal wagon to the casino in 1993 when Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr. cut the deal that gave Foxwoods slots in exchange for a 25 percent take. The more that Connecticut residents lose at the slots, the more that flows into the state treasury. That’s not just stupid public policy. It’s criminal.
With the tribe unwinding from within, external forces are also at play. Earlier this year, Massachusetts authorized casinos. Soon there will be thousands of slot machines there. Too bad 36 percent of Foxwoods patrons come from the Bay State.
The irony is that the tribe can’t help itself. The Congressional Act that turned former tribal chairman Skip Hayward & Co. into a sovereign nation came with strings, such as the one that prohibits reservation land from being sold or used as collateral. So although the tribe likes the fact that the state can’t tax its casino or the land it sits on, it is unable to sell off assets to pay down its crushing debt.
So 10 years after writing “Without Reservation,” I believe something that one of the chief architects of the tribe once told me when we were talking off the record. He expected the tribe and its casino to implode within two generations. He was pretty sure that the tribe couldn’t handle its new wealth. His prediction appears to be ahead of schedule.
Jeff Benedict writes for SI.com and teaches Writing and Mass Media at Southern Virginia University.