Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

Tribal leader says casino CEO out, some council members disagree

RIVERTON (WNE) — After a 3-3 vote by the Northern Arapaho Business Council last week, Wind River Hotel and Casino CEO Jim Conrad received a letter from NABC chairman Lee Spoonhunter which stated Conrad will not be offered a new contract.

"This is not a termination," Spoonhunter said. "Your present contract will expire on its own terms on June 30, 2019. We expect that you will continue to serve as CEO until that date. We thank you for your service to the Northern Arapaho Tribe."

However, not all council-members are in agreement about Conrad's future, and NABC co-chairman Al Addison told The Ranger that Spoonhunter's letter differed from the terms the other five council members agreed to.

Addison, who favored retaining Conrad, said he expected Spoonhunter's letter would have told Conrad to "continue in your current position after the date of your contract expiration until the council can resolve the impasse."

Addison said that he, Samuel Dresser and Clarinda Calling Thunder voted to offer Conrad another contract.

Spoonhunter, Stephen Fasthorse and Kim Harjo voted against the proposal.

With about 550 employees, the casino is Fremont County's largest employers and one of Wyoming's top 30 employers.

Conrad has helmed the casino since its creation in 2005. Since Andi Clifford left the casino's assistant manager position in 2018, operations of the casino have only become more reliant on Conrad. Currently, 28 managers report directly to him.

Before coming to Fremont County in 2005, Conrad had served as CEO at two other casinos.

With casinos subject to high levels of regulation and federal oversight, other managers at the Wind River Casino have questioned whether anyone affiliated with the tribe credibly can replace Conrad.

Monday's decision comes almost a month after consulting firm Spectrum Gaming Group presented the tribe with a 44-page "operational assessment," which noted the strengths and weaknesses of the casino's current management after examining "whether the operation, both casino and hotel, are functioning effectively and in accord with best industry practices for a gaming operation of that size and scope."

The April 26 report presents a favorable view of the casino's finances, noting that the casino appears unusually successful despite existing in a "business climate ... marked by many challenges including location in an isolated area, a limited employee pool, and an economy subject to fluctuations of the oil, gas and coal industry."

"Despite these challenges, Spectrum found that the casinos have established a sustainable business; the gaming operations are financially stable and is able to meet all financial obligations, including the servicing of their debt; the operation is liquid; and perhaps of equal or greater importance, the casinos and associated facilities provide employment for well over 500 people, of which about 80 percent are Northern Arapaho tribal members," the report states.

Spectrum concluded that "the operation is performing well, is profitable, and at the same time fulfilling its social responsibilities as a responsible regulatory citizen."

Compared to most of the casinos that Spectrum evaluated, the Wind River Casino is not in an environment that fosters economic success, the consulting group wrote.

The casino, in particular, suffers from high costs related to a poor labor pool.

"Story after story was relayed about how most applicants for jobs do not possess phones that are consistently turned on, how applicants often don't show up for work, how many of them fail random drug tests, how many have never held a job before and do not have rudimentary skills in math or other subjects that are necessary for jobs in a casino," Spectrum wrote.

The consulting group said the casino is "isolated perhaps to as great a degree as any business in the continental United States that depends on incoming patrons to survive."

The report notes that the energy industry is key to sustaining the casino and that the casino's finances have suffered as mining jobs in Fremont County dropped from 1,430 jobs in 2013 to 789 in 2018.

The Spectrum report also addresses a number of ways "the casinos can improve business practices in several areas."

Spectrum details 18 total "findings" of ways the casino's management should improve operations.

For example, Spectrum said the casino should implement "best practices in purchasing and bidding procedures."

The report also said Conrad needs to delegate more responsibilities, as the fact that 28 managers report directly to Conrad "presents some vulnerabilities to operations."

"If there is a longer leave by the CEO there will be issues of allocation of funds, hiring and firing issues, alteration in policy, which can only be resolved by consultation of a manager and the CEO," Spectrum wrote. "In fact, having no second in command leaves the organization vulnerable to delays in resolving important issues should Jim Conrad leave his position."

Spectrum suggests that Clifford's position needs to be filled to "facilitate better allocation of time."

"Having no second in command leaves the organization vulnerable to delays in resolving important issues should Conrad leave his position," Spectrum stated.

Some managers have also said they wanted more consultation on their own budgets, that more staffing is needed in their departments, and that "additional policies and programs could be created in their areas that would further enhance their departments."

Spectrum also suggests the casino needs greater clarity regarding human resources issues, including tables or organization and job descriptions.

Despite the casino's favorable finances, the Spectrum report details a number of security weaknesses that could allow employees or others to steal from the casino. In fact, eight of Spectrum's findings essentially detail a "how-to" guide for ways the casino could become a victim of theft without managers knowing.

Particularly, the reports suggest the current practices in how revenues from slot machines and table games are moved into security locations leaves the casino particularly vulnerable to theft during the accounting process of casino revenues.

Spectrum suggested new protocols for security operations to ensure that no one outside of casino management and security becomes aware of the casino's "various blind spots, if any."

The report also raised concern over whether all surveillance employees are properly trained in accordance with the casino's policy that surveillance operators are given a training course at the beginning of their employment, with "annual refresher" courses in subsequent years.

"We interviewed a surveillance employee who stated that she had been working for approximately two-plus months but she has yet to receive any training," the Spectrum report states. "She informed us that she would refer to the 'standard dealing procedures' manual if she had a question or she would ask another senior operator for assistance."

The report also stated that some managers lacked appropriate familiarity with the casino's minimum internal control standards.

"Except for the operating deficiencies noted under the Summary of Findings section of this report, nothing came to our attention that would suggest that the casino management of the Northern Arapaho Gaming Enterprises had intentionally and willfully violated any gaming rules and regulations of the National Indian Gaming Commission, the Northern Arapaho Gaming Agency and/or any internal control procedures approved by NAGA," Spectrum concluded.

In an e-mail to The Ranger, Conrad said "management has already begun to address" the operational findings detailed in the Spectrum report, such as those regarding money handling protocols.

Recognizing Spectrum's suggestion of greater communication between casino management and the NABC, Conrad said that "if communications were improved, then these false allegations would not become viral in nature."

"In addition to annual external audits, all casino operations are regulated and monitored on a daily basis, by a tribal gaming regulatory agency and an on-site regulator as required under the gaming procedures approved by the Secretary of the Interior and supervised by the National Indian Gaming Commission," Conrad said.