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The Big Gamble

Thomas Tureen, the lawyer who scored major land claims for the Indians in Maine, now has a bigger prize in mind -- casino gambling. His clients have a lot riding on the outcome, and he stands to make a killing.

In 1980, Thomas Tureen became a legendary figure in Maine when he won a stunning land-claim settlement on behalf of two tribes, the Penobscots and the Passamaquoddies. Tureen had brought the case eight years earlier under an obscure federal statute, arguing that the Indians had been wrongfully dispossessed of 12 million acres of their aboriginal territory, an area covering about two-thirds of Maine.

The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, as the deal was called, awarded the tribes $81.5 million in federal funds and recognized the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies as Indian tribes under US law. It was an extraordinary coup for Tureen, who had extracted huge gains against very long odds for the two small and impoverished tribes and in effect had breathed new life into the Indians' aspirations to survive as a distinct people.

The deal did have a downside from the Indians' perspective. It curbed the Maine tribes' sovereignty on their reservations in unusual ways compared with the prerogatives of other federally recognized tribes. But Tureen had concluded that the settlement was the best deal possible in the political environment of the time, and the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribal councils had gone along with him.

His goal as a young legal services attorney had been simple: to put the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies on essentially the same economic footing as the nation's hundreds of federally recognized tribes. And in the settlement, he believed he had achieved it. Now Tureen has changed his mind. His reason -- in a word -- is casinos.

Many tribes are counting on casinos to deliver them from the widespread poverty that has plagued their people for generations. Indian-owned gambling businesses ranging from bingo halls to casinos already amount to a $14.5 billion industry, according to Mark Van Norman, executive director of the American Indian Gaming Association. Casinos are the "new buffalo," as the cliche in Indian country has it.

But the cliche obscures an important point: Not all of the 175 tribes that own a total of 232 casinos in 19 states are hitting the jackpot. That distinction belongs to the "top 40" tribes with casino revenues exceeding $100 million, says Van Norman, and those tribes have reservations (and thus casinos) close to urban areas.

The Maine land-claim settlement says nothing about casinos or gambling in so many words. But state and federal courts have interpreted the sovereignty provisions as preventing the tribes from entering the casino business unless Maine enacts a law specifically authorizing it.

Tureen has mounted one of the most expensive political campaigns in Maine history to do just that. His plan envisions a $650 million resort-and-casino complex in the faded mill town of Sanford, 90 miles north of Boston. The proposal to authorize an Indian casino will be before Maine voters in a statewide referendum on November 4. Public opinion polls suggest that the vote will probably be close.

By his own account, Tureen has an extraordinary personal stake in the outcome. The casino proposal is his chance to complete what he considers his life's work: attaining justice for the Penobscots and the Passamaquoddies. "This would close the loop on the whole process," he says, "because [the right to open a casino] was the one thing that the Maine tribes didn't get out of the settlement."

All of which sounds selfless and noble, except that Tureen has a different kind of stake in the referendum as well. If an Indian casino is built in Maine, he would make a pot of money.

A look at the whole of Tureen's career finds echoes of those dual interests: the betterment of the Maine tribes' lot on the one hand and his own financial betterment on the other. Since the late 1960s, he has represented tribes in Maine and other states as a private lawyer and as an investment consultant. That work has reaped substantial financial rewards for him but mixed results for the tribes.

The Indian-rights cause that so impassions Tureen has played an inconspicuous part in the campaign waged by Think About It, the pro-casino political action committee that he founded a year ago. The calculus appears to be that the justice-for-Indians theme has limited appeal to voters. Think About It's focus, instead, is on the jobs and tax relief that the casino will purportedly deliver to the people of Maine. If a casino is approved, it will mean 10,000 new jobs in the state, plus $100 million in new tax revenues, Think About It's ads promise.

Strangely, Tureen has been absent from the public debate over his casino proposal. His stand-in is Erin Lehane, a polished 32-year-old lawyer whom he hired as Think About It's campaign manager and spokeswoman. Tureen has made few public speeches in support of the casino and has declined most journalists' requests for interviews. (He made an exception by cooperating with the Globe Magazine on this story.)

He has kept a low profile for months, fearing that casino opponents would make him the issue instead of the merits of his proposal. "They were out to make me a villain," Tureen says.

That's a contention that Dennis Bailey, the spokesman for the leading anticasino group in Maine, Casinos No!, disputes. "His reputation is a mixed bag," Bailey says about Tureen. "In the 1970s and early 1980s, he was seen as a rebel lawyer working pro bono for the tribes. The perception changed. He became just a deal maker."

IN THE SPRING OF 1969, TOM TUREEN WAS IN SUCH A RUSH TO start his $9,000-a-year job with Pine Tree Legal Assistance that he skipped his law school commencement and high-tailed it to Calais, a desolate town on the Canadian border. His office was a second-floor walk-up above a Hathaway factory outlet. The only heat was from a pot-bellied stove.

One of his early clients was Tim Love, a Penobscot who had been expelled from high school for not saluting the American flag. Tureen succeeded in having Love readmitted to the school. Love later became the Penobscots' governor and collaborated with Tureen while the lawyer was pursuing the tribe's land claim in federal court.

Two years ago, Love was employed as a liaison between the Mashantucket Pequots, the Connecticut tribe that owns the fabulously successful Foxwoods Resort and Casino, and the surrounding town of Ledyard. Love saw firsthand how a casino like Foxwoods, which is hauling in $1.1 billion a year in revenues, can enrich an Indian tribe.

Love sought out Tureen. "'Are the Maine tribes forever destined to be left out of this?'" Tureen quotes Love as asking him. "'Is there anything that can be done? What would you do?'"

Tureen knew that virtually all Indian casinos were on reservations. By putting them on reservations, the tribes have been able to open casinos under their sovereign power rather than a state's. The scenarios for Indian-run casinos in Maine had contemplated them either on the Penobscot reservation in central Maine or in Calais, which is roughly in between the two remote Passamaquoddy reservations at Pleasant Point and Indian Township in easternmost Maine.

"It occurred to me that we should try to get a facility authorized in the southern part of the state," Tureen says.

"If we had it off-reservation," Tureen continues, summarizing his advice to Love, "we could avoid the political problems that some tribes have had with their neighbors. Be subject to local regulation, who cares? Be subject to local taxation, why not? But also we could put it close to Maine's greatest natural resource, namely, the wealthy people living in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. We could have something that would be far more beneficial both to the tribes and the state."

Once the idea had crystallized in Tureen's mind, he pitched the plan to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribal councils. They signed on, leaving it to Tureen to clear the way politically.

His first attempt was to seek approval from the Maine Legislature. In the spring of 2002, he hired two lobbyists, who joined him in attempting to persuade lawmakers to back the plan, but it died for lack of support. Then he and two tribal leaders met with Angus King Jr., the governor of Maine at the time. "The biggest argument Tom made is: It's going to happen," King recalls. "The train is leaving the station. You can sign up. You can be on the casino's board of directors."

King had been on record against casinos since he was first elected governor in 1994. He had staunchly opposed the idea of an Indian casino in Calais. Nothing that Tureen said caused him to change his mind. "I said, 'There are lots of ways to do economic development other than casinos, and I don't think this is the answer,' " King recounts. "It clearly would make a lot of money for a few people, but there was no way to assess what it would do for the tribes."

There was another avenue open to Tureen. He could put his plan directly to voters in a referendum. Running a political campaign was not something that Tureen had done before. It was a big gamble, not the least because of the cost. Tureen fronted the campaign's initial phase with $270,000 from his own pocket.

With help from law firms that Tureen retained in Portland and Augusta, Maine, and in Boston, he drafted a 7,500-word amendment to the Maine Land Claim Settlement Act. Tureen had to collect 50,519 signatures on a petition seeking to put the measure on the Maine ballot, a task he farmed out to a for-profit company based outside the state.

Tureen enlisted a top casino design and management firm, Marnell Associates, based in Las Vegas (its credits include the Mirage and Bellagio casinos), as a consultant and financial backer. Also brought aboard were out-of-state companies to handle a direct-mail campaign, produce a series of TV and radio ads, and conscript a youthful brigade of 25 paid canvassers to knock on doors. "This is really a political campaign of the first order," Tureen says. "We have a presidential-campaign-quality team in place."

The multimillion-dollar ad blitz and the campaign's other costs are being borne by Marnell, which reimbursed Tureen his $270,000. If the casino's slot machines and roulette wheels start cranking, Marnell will collect a portion of the revenues. How much Marnell will get is confidential, the parties to the deal say.

Nor has it been disclosed what the tribes are promised as their share of the casino's revenues, although published estimates put the figure at $50 million to $100 million a year. "I can tell you we've been privy to projections, and they are confidential," Barry Dana, the Penobscots' chief, says. "But I can tell you the tribes are very pleased with what is projected."

Tureen and Love would also receive a cut of the proceeds through their partnership called Nedeebh (pronounced knee-DA-bay), which is the word for "friend" in Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. Tureen will not disclose Nedeebh's deal with the tribes, but he insists, "I can tell you that the Maine Indians will get the lion's share of the benefits."

Two large signs stand at the entrance to the narrow bridge leading to the Penobscots' reservation on Indian Island north of Bangor. "Home of the Penobscots," reads one. A second sign of equal prominence proclaims, "Indian Stakes Bingo." Thus does the Penobscot Indian Nation signal the importance that it assigns to the tribal enterprise of bingo.

The tribe's bingo hall on the 315-acre island is located in a barnlike arena once used for ice skating. "We have high-stakes bingo eight weekends a year," explains Mark Chevaree, the Penobscot tribe's in-house lawyer, speaking one day last summer into a microphone from the front of a bus.

Chevaree is acting as a tour guide for a group of about two dozen residents of Sanford, Maine, whom Think About It has bused to the reservation as a goodwill gesture. The occasion is "Indian Days," an outdoor festival that the Penobscots host every summer for tribe members and their non-Indian neighbors.

Tureen has invited me to accompany him to the reservation for the event. I had met him in Portland that morning, and he and I had driven to the reservation in Think About It's leased Ford Taurus station wagon, which was plastered with bumper stickers saying, "VOTE YES! Resort Casino." Tureen is short (5-foot-6) and clean-cut, and his head is topped by a thatch of frost-white hair. He will turn 60 on December 15. On this day, he is wearing a red T-shirt and gray shorts.

Once we arrive at Indian Island, Tureen and I board the bus for Chevaree's tour. "When I grew up here, this was just a little dirt road," Chevaree begins his commentary, as his listeners on the bus peer through tinted windows.

The bus rolls down the now-paved roads that crisscross the reservation. Some lead to small subdivisions of modest, tidy wood-frame bungalows funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"When I was a kid, there weren't as many houses here. We were able to build more only when we got federal recognition, with Tom's help," he says with a nod toward Tureen. The reservation is at full capacity -- about 500 of the tribe's 2,100 members live there -- and 35 more are on a waiting list.

The bus stops at a cemetery, and Chevaree reminisces about his grandparents, Sylvester and Josephine Francis, who are buried there. His grandmother spoke the Penobscot language fluently, but not his mother. Food was scarce when his mother was young. At times she ate muskrat and beaver trapped by his grandfather. "When I was growing up," Chevaree says, "we really didn't have a lot of resources. It was just surviving."

The tour ends near a gray-stone bunker of a building that houses the Penobscots' only school (classes from pre-kindergarten to the eighth grade). Striding past the school, Tureen abruptly wheels in his tracks.

"That is required by the BIA," he snaps, referring to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tureen is pointing at a black wrought-iron fence standing forlornly in front of the school. A posted sign says alcoholic beverages are prohibited on school property. "The fence makes it look like a detention center," Tureen says.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs hadn't actually required the Penobscots to build the fence, although the agency's funds did pay for it. Tureen's hypersensitivity to what he perceives as misguided bureau policy toward an Indian school seemed to replay in miniature a story that he has often told to explain why he embraced the Indian-rights cause in the first place.

The story takes place in 1964, when Tureen was between his sophomore and junior years at Princeton University. He took a summer job as an assistant director of a recreation program at a bureau-run Indian boarding school in South Dakota.

The students who remained at the school in the summer were those whom the agency had decided came from abusive families on Indian reservations. The process of determining which students could go home and which stayed struck Tureen as distressingly arbitrary. Another rule that deeply offended Tureen prohibited students from speaking an Indian language. They did so at the risk of a whipping.

"I was stunned," Tureen explains, "not only by the poverty of the kids but by the extent of control that the school had over their lives." Tureen decided that he would work in one way or another to help the Indians solve their problems. The more he thought about it, the more he believed that the root of their problems was political, and he enrolled at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., to become a lawyer and help Indians in that capacity.

His first job out of law school was with the Indian Services Unit of Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine. Languishing in his files in his new office was a land-claim case that another legal services lawyer had commenced in 1968 on behalf of the Passamaquoddies. The suit claimed $150 million in trespass damages for 6,000 acres lost by the Indians in alleged violation of a state treaty. Tureen plunged into the case.

Relying on a little-known federal statute, the Indian Trade and Nonintercourse Act, Tureen brought a sweeping suit in federal court to recoup 12 million acres of the Maine tribes' aboriginal lands. The Nonintercourse Act, which George Washington had signed into law in 1790, prevents the sale of Indian lands without the approval of Congress.

Once the case gained traction in court, it cast a cloud over the title to millions of acres of Maine real estate. Tureen became a reviled figure in some quarters. An editorial in the Bangor Daily News castigated him for "arrogance and audacity." He was the subject of death threats. For a while, he carried a snub-nosed .38-caliber handgun. The case was finally settled after eight months of court wrangling and legislative haggling.

The Nonintercourse Act was of little value out West, where most of the nation's tribes lost their lands by federal treaty. But Tureen and a team of public-interest lawyers pursued Indian land claims in several other Eastern states. Tureen scored settlements for the Wampanoags at Gay Head (now Aquinnah) on Martha's Vineyard, the Narragansetts in Rhode Island, and the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut.

"For most of the eastern tribes, he was the key figure in resolving their tribal status and land claims," says John E. Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado.

By the mid-1980s, Tureen had come to the conclusion that the land-claims litigation had run its course. He was looking ahead to the economic future of the Passamaquoddies and Penobscots. He liked what he saw. The Maine tribes were on an "aggressive investment and acquisition strategy," he wrote in a passage that he contributed to a book published in 1985.

The Maine tribes were "well on their way to becoming a major financial presence in Maine," Tureen boasts. By then, he had more than an armchair observer's interest in whether or not the tribes were becoming a financial presence.

He and his wife, Susan, and their two children (who are now grown) had moved to Portland. Tureen had hung out a shingle as a private lawyer and, in 1983, founded Tribal Assets Management, a for-profit investment firm representing Indian tribes. The Penobscot Indian Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, his two most important clients when he was a legal services lawyer, were now his two most important business clients. To boost them economically as he had helped them legally, Tureen became the tribes' financial consultant, investing tens of millions of dollars for them over the next 12 years, helping them to launch some companies and to buy others.

Now, as Tureen portrays it, his mission to further the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies' economic development underlies his quest for an Indian casino in Maine. "I'm motivated by justice," he says. "I get a lot of pleasure out of making the system work." Yet Tureen's record as economic guru to Indian tribes has figured only peripherally in the public debate over the casino proposal.

Part of Tureen's record implicitly came under fire in an August editorial in the Portland Press Herald, Maine's largest newspaper. The editorial doesn't name Tureen, but it pointedly notes that casinos meant to help Indian tribes "mainly help the developers, who invest millions in the projects and walk away with even more."

The editorial cites the example of the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, which will reportedly yield $1 billion to its original investors, the Malaysian billionaire Lim Goh Tong and his family.

Foxwoods is a subject that Tureen knows intimately. It was his maneuvering that rescued the Mashantucket Pequots from virtual extinction as a tribe and enabled them to expand their bleak, rock-filled rservation in Connecticut from about 200 to 2,000 acres. Aided by Tureen's law firm and Tribal Assets, the Pequots secured the legal authority and money to open their Las Vegas-style casino on the property in 1992.

A few days after the Press Herald editorial appears, I call on Tureen at Think About It's spare office over a bookstore at Monument Square in downtown Portland. Tureen looks stylishly professional in a crisp olive suit and red paisley tie. He is plainly irked by the editorial.

Yes, he concedes, the Lim family is doing well with its investment in Foxwoods. But he points out that the Lims had lent the Pequots $60 million to build the casino when it was still a very risky proposition that no other financier would touch.

When I ask Tureen how much he received as his share of the Foxwoods deal, he looks pained. Indian tribes ought to have the right to hire "first-class" talent when they need it, he says. Then he declares, "I structured the whole deal, and I got only a tiny fraction of the benefits." The terms of his Foxwoods deal with the Pequots are also confidential, he says.

"The important point," he adds, "is that the Indians will make billions."

The conversation turns to Tribal Assets and how it invested the Maine tribes' money from 1983 to 1995 when Tureen and a partner operated the firm.

The firm advised the tribes to invest money in a wide variety of industries. Among the investments for the Passamaquoddies was a parking garage, an AM-FM radio station, a blueberry farm, and a cement-manufacturing plant. The last venture involved the purchase of Dragon Cement and its later sale for a $50 million profit. The Penobscots wound up with, among other businesses, an audiocassette factory, an ice skating arena, and a mobile home retailer.

How you sum up Tureen's record as a financial consultant to the tribes depends on the standard you apply. By a return-on-investment yardstick, the Penobscots did poorly -- "probably breaking even," Tureen acknowledges. When I ask Penobscot chief Dana, who is Tureen's ally on the casino proposal, if his tribe has benefited from the transactions that Tribal Assets handles for the Penobscots, he replies: "All I know is what I have to work with today, and it's not much."

The Passamaquoddy tribe fared much better with the investments recommended by his firm, Tureen says. Total investments of $5 million on the tribe's behalf garnered a profit of $80 million to $90 million, according to Tureen, a result he termed "spectacular." Joseph Socobasin, the lieutenant governor of the Passamaquoddies at the Indian Township reservation, concurs. "Basically the sentiment here is that Tom did very well for us," he says.

If Tureen's record as economic-development guru for the tribes is judged by how many jobs his deals secured for tribe members, it is a different story. A few ventures did pay off that way for a while, with one company or another employing a scattering of Penobscots or Passamaquoddies.

However, Tureen leaves no shining legacy of lasting employment for tribe members. The star performer in his portfolio of enduring job-creating companies has been Northeast Blueberry Co., a wild-blueberry farm that puts 500 tribe members to work picking berries at $2.50 a box during its three-week harvest every summer but employs only about a dozen members year-round.

In return for Tribal Assets's consulting and brokerage services, the Maine tribes ladled out millions of dollars in transactional and administrative fees to the firm. A single deal could run up a sizable bill. For example, to handle the $5 million purchase of Schiavi Homes, the mobile-home retailer, Tureen's firm charged the Penobscots $400,000. That proved to be money down the drain when a bank foreclosed on its loan to Schiavi three years later, resulting in the company's bankruptcy and a $1 million loss for the tribe.

Resentment about such transactions lingers among some tribe members. "As far as the tribe is concerned, we didn't make any money. He made all the money," says Francis Mitchell, who was elected to a two-year term as Pensobscot's governor in 1988. Mitchell halted all dealings between the tribe and Tureen's firm because of his suspicion that the tribe was not getting a fair shake. A year later, he lost his post in a recall election held by the Penobscott tribal council, which he says Tureen had "engineered." Tureen denies the accusation.

The fees that his firm levied on the tribes reflected the going rate in the investment brokerage industry and, once Tribal Assets covered its costs, merely amounted to "salaries" for Tureen and his employees, Tureen maintains. Although Tureen doesn't deny that he is wealthy ("I'm not as wealthy as people think I am"), he says that gains from his personal real estate transactions and investments, not income derived from Tribal Assets, are the main source of his wealth.

He lived at one of Maine's most prestigious addresses, the oceanfront Stonecroft estate in Falmouth, before he sold it last spring. The listing price was $7.5 million.

As he waits for Maine voters to decide the fate of his casino proposal, Tureen once again is contemplating the financial future of the Penobscots and the Passamaquoddies. This time, though, he appears to be choosing his words cautiously. If the casino proposal is approved, he says, it will produce "meaningful capital" for the tribes and will go a "long way" toward his decades-long goal of putting the Indians in "the position of independence and importance that they would have been in if the law had been obeyed and they had been treated fairly."

Joseph Rosenbloom is a contributing editor to The American Prospect and Inc.

A hearing in Sanford draws opponents of the plan. A hearing in Sanford draws opponents of the plan. (Photo / Fred J. Field)
In 1980, Thomas Tureen appears before a US Senate panel to press Indian land claims. In 1980, Thomas Tureen appears before a US Senate panel to press Indian land claims. (Photo / Bangor Daily News)
Twenty-three years later, Tureen listens to debate in Sanford on the merits of his casino plan. Twenty-three years later, Tureen listens to debate in Sanford on the merits of his casino plan. (Photo / Fred J. Field)
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