$80M Construction Overrun at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Leads to Tribal Ouster Vote
North Carolina’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal council narrowly voted to remove Jim Owle as chairman of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise (TCGE). The recent resolution stemmed from cost overruns for an expansion at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee.
The cost of the project escalated by $80 million beyond the $250 million previously budgeted for the expansion, the Smoky Mountain News, a local publication in North Carolina, reported last week.
The TCGE committee allegedly failed to provide adequate documents to the tribal council on the added expenses. Also, the information the committee did provide the tribal council was delayed and incomplete, council members alleged.
On Dec. 3, tribal council members met during what was described as an “at-times tense” discussion before taking the vote, the News said. The tribal council’s resolution was forwarded to Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, the Cherokee One Feather, a tribal publication, said. He can ratify it.
Vote Carried Because of Weighting by Population
The council’s final vote on the resolution was 48-to-40. The News explained only a minority of tribal council members actually supported the resolution.
But those members were in the majority because the council uses weighted votes based on population of the representative’s districts. The actual vote was five to six with one abstention, the Cherokee One Feather said.
During the meeting, Birdtown tribal council Representative Albert Rose argued that given the committee’s “conduct,” there was grounds for removing the chairman, the News said.
The conduct is dangerous, what they’ve been doing,” Rose added. “We’re going through an epidemic right now. We’re cutting funding in education and other programs, so I just want to stress if this conduct is not removable, then nothing is.”
Tribal council members were also angered the request from the TCGE committee did not have supporting documents, the News said. Also, it took the TCGE four months to present minutes to the tribal council and they appeared incomplete, the report said.
“All of the above instances show a lack of leadership and a need to remove the TCGE chairman,” a tribal council resolution said.
Committee Chairman’s Brother Defends Him at Meeting
But Birdtown tribal council Representative Boyd Owle was opposed to the resolution. He abstained on the vote because Jim Owle is his brother.
I didn’t see any misconduct from one person,” Boyd Owle said. “If it was anybody, it was all of them.”
He also pointed out the committee told tribal council members they could view more complete minutes at the TCGE office.
But Wolfetown tribal council Representative Chelsea Saunooke, countered, “We all know that being a chair of any committee, body, whatever, they have some greater responsibilities than the rest of the board.”
In addition, the tribal council is continuing an investigation of the TCGE. It is a “forensic audit and investigation into all TCGE powers and duties described in Cherokee Code 16A-5,” the News reported.
“There is an investigation that I understand is still ongoing,” tribal council Big Cove Representative Perry Shell said. “We paid $200,000 for it…. I think we’re jumping the gun by voting on this [removal].”
In addition, tribal council Chairman Adam Wachacha advised that “If the investigation deems there’s any kind of malfeasance or any illegal activity, then that information will be brought to the board and we’ll handle it then.”
Harrah’s Cherokee is scheduled to complete the expansion in 2021. It will add 83,000 square feet of conference space and a fourth hotel tower.
Tribe Looking to Expand Number of Gaming Properties
Last month, Richard Sneed told Casino.org the Eastern Band is always looking for ways to expand its gaming portfolio, whether through new developments or acquisitions. At its Nov. 12 meeting, the tribe approved the creation of a limited liability company to pursue opportunities in the commercial gaming sector.
In an unrelated incident, an attempt to money launder over $350,000 at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino in September led to seven suspects being charged and federal officials seizing a total of $2.1 million.
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