Tribe members question $70M in spending
MASHPEE — Two Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe members, punished for speaking out about alleged financial mismanagement seven years ago, are at it again.
Michelle Fernandes and Stephanie Tobey-Roderick are renewing their questions about a lack of transparency from tribe leadership about how and where the tribe is spending the millions of dollars it has borrowed from tribe casino investors.
In 2006, the two filed suit in Barnstable Superior Court with two other tribe members and within days all four were shunned by the tribal council, a punishment that stripped them of their tribal rights for seven years and banned them from events such as the annual powwow.
Ultimately, the suit was tossed from Barnstable Superior Court for lack of jurisdiction because, as a federally recognized tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag is considered sovereign. But the substance of those allegations helped ignite a federal investigation that led to the ouster of former tribal council Chairman Glenn Marshall and, ultimately, his conviction on federal corruption and embezzlement charges.
Fernandes and Tobey-Roderick have since been reinstated, though they say some tribe members still blame them for bringing down Marshall and contributing to the collapse of a Middleboro casino deal that some in the tribe saw as a gravy train.
"That was a bad deal," Fernandes said. "They should be thanking us for saving the tribe."
Now, as the tribe and its new investors hotly pursue a new $500 million casino in Taunton, Fernandes and Tobey-Roderick are raising new questions about financial transparency. At a meeting Saturday at the Mashpee Rod and Gun Club attended by more than 30 concerned tribe members, they began to gather signatures for a petition saying tribe members deserve to know now much the tribe has borrowed from investors and how the funds are being spent.
The petition seeks information about tribal council salaries, credit card expenses, fees paid to consultants and funds allegedly doled out at the discretion of tribal council Chairman Cedric Cromwell.
It's information, the two tribe members say, that would be readily available to citizens of a town, state or country through public records requests or, in some cases, by clicking into a database. But under the tribe's constitution, there is no mechanism to file a public records request.
In order to call a special meeting of the tribe on the issues raised by the petitions, the two members need to gather 100 signatures of certified members. Another meeting is in the works for early January to gather signatures. The process was used by Cromwell confidant Aaron Tobey in the waning days of the Marshall-Shawn Hendricks administration to seek answers regarding tribe members being shunned and tribe finances.
Money is being borrowed and spent in the name of the Mashpee Wampanoag, so members should be entitled to the information, Fernandes and Tobey-Roderick say.
"We're not going to benefit from this," Fernandes said about the proposed casino. "Our children and our children's children are going to be faced with the bill to pay this back."
Sources have told the Times that the tribe's debt now exceeds $70 million from its seven-year pursuit of various casino projects. As of October, the tribal gaming authority owed investors more than $65 million, according to a document inadvertently handed out during the tribe's monthly meeting in November and obtained by the Times. The same document shows that in 2013, the tribe spent $27 million through its gaming authority. Sources say tribe leaders have since borrowed more money.
Fernandes and Tobey-Roderick say it's this trickle of information that has them worried about the unknown.
"We're reconvening because we see a problem," Fernandes said. "(Tribe leaders) say it will stop the whole gaming initiative if they give out information. ... Not only are they taking money based on our tribal status, government status, citizen status, but they're saying we're going to spend the money and you don't have a right to know what we're spending it on.
"Seven years ago, we asked, 'Where's the $15 million?'" Fernandes said about the money the tribe received from casino investor Herb Strather of Detroit. "Now we're asking, 'Where is the $70 million?' Where is it? We're at the same point. It's still an issue."
Cromwell refused a request for an interview through Frank Quaratiello, a representative of Regan Communications, the tribe's public relations firm. Instead he asked for questions in writing. He then responded in an email from the public relations firm that tribe members are "well-informed about tribe finances" and budgets and expenditures are reviewed by auditors.
"The tribe does not comment on internal financial matters," the email states.
However, tribal council Secretary Marie Stone, reached by phone, criticized those speaking out about tribe finances.
"We know the haters are out there spreading their lies," she said. "I think it's disgusting they are so shallow that they're willing to tear our family apart."
Stone defended the borrowing and spending that's been done in support of the Taunton casino. "It takes money to make money," she said.
As for transparency, Stone said tribe members were recently mailed the upcoming year's budget and though it doesn't attach salaries to names, it does provide a bottom line for all line items, she said.
Fernandes and Tobey-Roderick also question a discretionary fund that Cromwell has at his disposal that, according to multiple sources, allows him to provide up to $2,500 to an individual tribe member.
The email from the tribe's public relations firm acknowledges the fund, but says it is for "emergency hardships" and there are "strict internal controls" on how that money is spent.
Cromwell is supposed to provide a reason to the tribal council for payments, but sources say that hasn't been happening.
Tribe members have little recourse to force the issue without filing petitions. State courts won't hear their cases and recently the U.S. District Court, citing a lack of jurisdiction, rejected a request by Tobey-Roderick to have the court intervene on what she considered questionable credit card spending. The case was dismissed without prejudice, which means she can bring it back if she can make a stronger case for why that court should intervene.
Other records obtained by the Times show one-month American Express charges on a tribal credit card as high as $10,000 for some tribe leaders in 2012. Cromwell answered concerns of tribe members in 2012, according to a document provided to the Times, saying the money was for travel, food and lodging.
Tobey-Roderick and Fernandes say they want specifics in light of the recent conviction of a Pequot tribe leader in Connecticut who misused tribe-issued credit cards.
In the email to the Times, Cromwell said credit card expenses are also audited.
A recent decision by the Supreme Court of the Wampanoag Tribe found that there is no mechanism for tribe members to sue the tribal council — something tribal Judge Robert Mills said in his decision should be rectified. So far, it hasn't been.
Stone, who attempted to sue her fellow councilors over what she believed was an unjust suspension, said she will file an amendment in 2014 to allow action against the tribal council.
"This government can't be held accountable right now," she said.
Cromwell ran on a platform that boasted his financial acumen and a promise of transparency, but the two tribe members say he hasn't lived up to that vow. "It's not the transparent government they said they were going to stand up for," Fernandes said.
Tribe leader's election disputed
Nine members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe want a U.S. District Court judge to order the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the 2009 election of current Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell.
On Jan. 14, a judge will hear the BIA's motion to dismiss the case.
In a brief supporting the motion, BIA lawyers contend the request for an investigation is moot because a subsequent election has taken place. They also argue that the United States has not waived its sovereign immunity to be sued by tribe members.
At issue is whether two members of the tribe who had been shunned by the tribal council — Michelle Fernandes and Stephanie Tobey-Roderick — should have been allowed to vote in the election. The plaintiffs also allege that voters weren't properly vetted to ensure they were qualified members of the tribe.
In an email to the Times through the tribe's public relations firm, Cromwell said the complaint has already gone through the tribe's appeal process.
"Due justice has taken place," the email states.
Meanwhile, questions are also being raised about the tribe's upcoming election in February. Four positions, including that of tribal council member Cheryl Frye-Cromwell, the chairman's wife, are up for re-election.
Fernandes and Tobey-Roderick want Frye-Cromwell's sister, Kim Frye, to step aside as chairman of the tribe's election committee.
Asked if that's a conflict of interest, Cromwell responded through the PR firm, saying, "The tribe has an independent election committee that follows the tribal election ordinance."
There is a provision in a proposed amendment to the election ordinance that would require Frye to step aside, but that has not been acted upon. A meeting of the tribal membership had been scheduled for Dec. 3 on that ordinance, but had to be postponed because of a BIA hearing in Taunton that night.
Tobey-Roderick and Fernandes say a meeting has been scheduled for Dec. 30 to consider election-related issues, though there is no posting of it on the tribe's website.