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Florida Lobbyist Turning Trump Ties Into Mega-Millions

Posted By at Thursday, July 06, 2017


Brian Ballard's new D.C. office is bagging big-name clients—including Turkey and the Socialist Party of Albania.

By Rachel Wilson, Center for Public Integrity

Lobbyist Brian Ballard has for years been a power player in Florida, plying the corridors of the state capitol in Tallahassee on behalf of

A-list clients such as Google, Uber, Honda—even the New York Yankees.

Now, the 55-year-old University of Florida Hall of Fame member—a major Donald Trump fundraiser who also worked on the president’s transition team—is out to prove he can translate his state-level lobbying chops into policy victories for a slew of new clients in Washington, D.C.

And he must ply his trade in the nation’s capital without looking as if he’s selling access to a president who has promised to stand up to special interests—a tricky course to navigate and one that has quickly tripped up other Trump alumni, such as former campaign manager-turned-lobbyist Corey Lewandowski.

“There’s a lot of blurred lines, you know,” Ballard said. “It's easy to say ‘Oh you are Trump’s person, you get this and that,’ but I don’t think it works out that way.”

But more than a few special interests apparently believe it does work that way, as Ballard hasn’t had to work hard to land fresh business.

Since opening his Washington, D.C., office in January— the new digs are just three blocks away from the White House and stocked with prominent influence brokers—Ballard has signed 33 federal-level clients. Most haven’t previously worked with him.

The list includes less-than-First World foreign governments—Turkey and the Dominican Republic, for two—and brand-name companies and organizations, such as Amazon, American Airlines, tobacco giant Reynolds American, private-prison firm Geo Group, Prudential Financial, NextEra Energy, the U.S. Sugar Corporation and the American Health Care Association.

In just five months, Ballard Partners’ federal lobbying operation has generated nearly $4 million in current and contracted business from foreign and domestic lobbying clients, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of records filed with the U.S. Congress and Department of Justice. That’s as much lobbying money as some established firms make in a year.

Ballard, whose firm remains a powerhouse in the Sunshine State, said he’s always been interested in entering the Washington lobbying market.

“It seemed,” he said, “that this was the time if we were ever going to do it.”

Pressed on why he chose to launch his Washington lobbying business now, Ballard didn’t specifically mention Trump—for whom he raised 2020 re-election campaign money as recently as June 28 at Trump’s D.C. hotel.

Instead, Ballard broadly touted his longstanding relationships with Republican congressmen, governors, and pre-Trump presidential candidates, such as John McCain and Mitt Romney.

“All relationships come into play,” said Ballard, who splits time between Washington and Tallahassee and lives out of a D.C. hotel about three nights each week while he searches for a home in the nation’s capital.

Ballard’s Trump connections are clearly part of his allure. And when a firm such as Ballard Partners hits the D.C. market, potential lobbying clients—such as the Dominican Republic—notice.

The island nation’s decision to hire Ballard’s firm is a big switch from its prior lobbying choices, Squire Patton Boggs and Steptoe & Johnson, both established K Street players.

Ballard has met with the ambassador personally and helped the country’s “orientation” with the Trump administration, said Felipe Herrera, counselor for the Dominican Republic’s embassy in the United States. Herrera wouldn’t give details on what this “orientation” entailed.

Ballard’s rapid ascent is a familiar Washington story—but the moral of the story is more than a little unclear.

For some veterans of D.C. political battles, this is simply how the system works: Hard work and access are rewarded, and prospective clients are justifiably searching for those who can best argue their interests.

For others, the Ballard tale represents the latest cynical example that well-heeled insiders call the tune and the rest of us are left on the outside looking in—hardly the “draining of the swamp” that Trump has repeatedly promised.

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at political-reform group Public Citizen, described Ballard Partners’ connections to Trump as “an example of transactional favor-building” and inherently problematic.

“You have an obligation to someone who helped you out in the past,” Gilbert said.

Added Steve Spaulding, chief of strategy for political-reform group Common Cause: “People are cashing in on their connections for those willing to pay.”

Insider extraordinaire

Ballard has seemingly always been a man in a hurry. After graduating from the University of Florida and its law school, Ballard became the director of operations to then-Florida Gov. Bob Martinez at age 26.

Ballard has been a household name in Tallahassee ever since, serving in various roles for a variety of Republican politicians, including former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and current Gov. Rick Scott. He served as the Florida finance chairman for the Republican presidential campaigns of both McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012.

While generally in league with Republicans, Ballard isn’t a conservative caricature. He’s occasionally given Democrats money, touts his environmentalist credentials, and has over the years lobbied for hundreds of clients, each of which have their own political agendas. He hires bona fide liberals to work at his firm.

Ballard even married into politics, as his wife, Kathryn, is the daughter of Jim Smith, a onetime Florida gubernatorial candidate who also served as Florida secretary of state and attorney general. Ballard and his father-in-law also worked together for many years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ballard’s official firm biography boasts that he “is one of the top political insiders in Florida.”

Whether they’re fans or foes of Ballard, Florida politicos tend to agree with this self-assessment.

“One of the three or four hardest working lobbyists in Florida’s capitol,” said Peter Schorsch, publisher of and Influence magazine, which tracks the governmental-affairs industry in Florida. “Even after building the highest-grossing firm in the state, he still walks the hallways himself. Truly, a general who leads from the front.”

Ballard’s far-flung operation has offices in Tallahassee, Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Coral Gables, and Jacksonville. Tony Boselli, the former all-pro offensive tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is a managing partner based in the Jacksonville office.

Then there’s Ballard’s West Palm Beach office—an eight-minute drive to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club resort, which Trump has dubbed the “winter White House.”

On Ballard’s Florida client list from 2013 to 2016? The Trump Organization.

Yet Ballard didn’t initially throw his support behind Trump’s presidential candidacy. He first supported the presidential bid of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In late 2015, he abandoned Bush and backed Sen. Marco Rubio.

When Rubio quit the race in early 2016, Ballard backed Trump, whom he first interacted with three decades earlier while working as a young gubernatorial staffer for Martinez.

Trump, of course, won the presidency. And Ballard, who’d help The Donald raise millions of dollars in his quest to best Democrat Hillary Clinton, even cast a vote for Trump as a member of the Electoral College.

All the while, Ballard’s national profile has continued to increase, and he’s “doing it without being a peacock like so many of the other new faces to the city who have ties to Trump,” Schorsch said. “Brian’s acting like he’s been to the end zone before.”

This year, for example, Ballard joined the Republican National Committee’s national finance leadership team. He also served as vice chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee and as a member of the Trump presidential transition finance committee.

These are credentials many clients find attractive.

For example, Wallace Cheves, managing partner of Sky Boat Gaming and a new client for Ballard, said he signed on because of Ballard’s “class A name on national issues with the Republican Party.”

Ballard’s D.C. office is now heavy on Trump campaign and transition veterans, such as Susie Wiles and Dan McFaul. While Ballard may downplay his Trump ties, Wiles and McFaul aren’t being as shy about their connections.

McFaul’s Ballard Partners biography advertises his role as a Trump presidential transition team member and notes he was responsible for “recruiting and vetting potential appointees to the upcoming administration, specifically for the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, the Armed Services, and the Intelligence community.”

Lobbying disclosure records show McFaul is now lobbying the Department of Veterans Affairs for a Ballard client, Veterans Evaluation Services. The company declined to comment.

Wiles helped lead Trump’s Florida effort during the presidential campaign — a decisive March 2016 victory for Trump over Rubio.

Wiles’ biography describes her as “Florida’s senior strategist for the Donald J. Trump Campaign.” The biography further mentions that “Florida, the largest of the swing states in the 2016 cycle, was a winning state for Trump/Pence.”

Wiles’ long history in Florida politics includes a stint as chief of staff for John Delaney, the onetime mayor of Jacksonville who’s now president of the University of North Florida.

Delaney told the Center for Public Integrity that Wiles was poised to take a position in the Trump White House, but decided against it.

“She likes to help her friends and she felt she could be more effective from outside the White House,” Delaney said.

Wiles declined to discuss particulars of the prospective Trump administration job beyond saying it related to her prior work both inside and outside government. (Her past clients have ranged from education interests to railroads.)

Does Wiles have qualms about using her ties to Washington political machinery—Trump, especially—to score points for paying clients?

“I wish the system didn’t require it, that you could make a change where you wouldn’t have to rely on that, but the government is so big and is based on influence by special interests,” Wiles said. “I wish it was different but this is the way it is.”

Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra and executive order squelching certain lobbying activity doesn’t apply to his presidential campaign officials or transition-team members, and several of them now work for lobbying clients—with mixed results.

Take Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager. He launched a lobbying firm with another former Trump staffer. But Lewandowski faced accusations he was selling access to Trump, and he left the firm last month.

For Ballard, though, it’s been full steam ahead—with a stable that includes not just Trump supporters, but also more traditional D.C. power players. For instance, Ballard has also hired former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL), who is quarterbacking the firm’s contract with Turkey.

While in Congress, Wexler served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA), a lobbyist who himself once advocated for Turkey, recalls lobbying Wexler on Turkey’s behalf back in those days.

“He was very effective, bright, and articulate” with a “genuine interest in Turkish issues,” Livingston said of Wexler.

Wexler calls lobbying “the same as lawyering, an honorable effort that serves a valid purpose.”

Also on Ballard’s team: Otto Reich, a former ambassador to Venezuela and prominent official in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Reich, who at Ballard Partners specializes in international affairs, has been a controversial figure since the 1980s, when the U.S. General Accounting Office found he engaged in “prohibited covert propaganda” in a bid to sway public opinion in support of Nicaraguan Contras.

Overseas connections

Foreign clients now account for a significant share of Ballard Partners’ business. Disclosures filed with the Department of Justice show Ballard Partners has secured three high-dollar foreign clients among his nearly two-dozen domestic clients: Turkey, the Dominican Republic, and the Socialist Party of Albania.

The firm’s contracts with those three clients are collectively valued at more than $2.6 million annually, according to disclosures filed with the Department of Justice.

Turkey’s relations with the United States have grown especially complicated after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail attacked and beat peaceful protesters outside the Turkish Embassy grounds in Washington this spring.

More broadly, Turkey’s international reputation has become imperiled following its jailing of dissidents and journalists. Turkey is also pressuring the White House to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric with close ties to U.S. politicians and who Turkey blames for a failed coup attempt last year.

Meanwhile, two other Ballard clients—Univision and the Socialist Party of Albania—appear eager to court Trump’s administration after their own campaign-season conflicts.

Univision, a Spanish-language television network headquartered in New York City, refused to broadcast the Trump-owned Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants after he made disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants while campaigning.

Trump later sued Univision for $500 million. The lawsuit has since been settled.

Trump himself booted Univision journalist Jorge Ramos from a campaign press conference in 2015.

Univision is now turning to Ballard to help mend the rocky relationship between Trump and the network.

Jessica Herrera-Flannigan, executive vice president of government and corporate affairs at Univision, declined an interview request. But she said in a written statement that the network hired Ballard Partners to “advise us on changing government policies and regulations, as well as on general telecommunications, immigration, and small-business issues.”

The Socialist Party of Albania, the ruling party in the Balkan nation, also has some fences to mend: Edi Rama, the current prime minister and party leader, said during the campaign that Trump represented a “threat to Albanian-American ties.”

The party did not return requests for comment. Nor did several other Ballard clients, including the American Health Care Association.

Several others refused to respond to a request for comment on why they chose Ballard’s firm—Amazon and American Airlines among them.

Ballard maintains the firm’s Washington office is “trying to honor the president and administration by not marketing relationships.”

“We don’t like to beat our chest,” Ballard said, “or talk about things that are inappropriate.”

And given his burgeoning lobbying business, Ballard Partners apparently doesn’t have to.

Dave Levinthal contributed to this report.


Las Vegas casino executives named to Trump inaugural committee

Posted By at Monday, January 09, 2017


Several prominent Las Vegas casino executives will help lead the Presidential Inaugural Committee, planning and coordinating official events related to Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s installation into the White House early next year.

Steve Wynn, Phil Ruffin and Sheldon and Miriam Adelson were all named “finance vice chairs” on the 20-person committee, which is responsible for “the planning and coordination of all official events and activities surrounding the inauguration” of Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, according to a statement released Tuesday.

Wynn is CEO of Wynn Resorts, Ruffin owns Treasure Island and co-owns Trump International in Las Vegas and Sheldon Adelson is chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20.

Billionaire Tom Barrack will chair the inaugural committee, which includes numerous wealthy Trump donors.

Barrack is a private equity executive and was deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior in the Reagan administration. He has served as an economic and national security adviser to Trump.

New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks and Dallas-based investor Ray Washburne are among the committee’s other members.

“Additional announcements regarding Presidential Inaugural Committee leadership will be forthcoming,” according to the statement.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.



Dear President Trump, 

Since the Catawba Nation helped us win the Revolutionary war and sided with the patriots, and this is proven by science and the Federal government to be their original land (Cleveland County), I hope that others supporting the 4,000+ new jobs in the two-state region of NC and SC will also sign this petition.  But we sure could use your help, Mr. President, to create jobs and opportunity in America.  This will also help build new curriculums of study at the college level of hospitality, hotel management, travel, security, maintenance, HVAC, electrical, robotics, plumbing, tourism, and culinary arts. 


Martin CJ Mongiello, MBA
Chief Financial Officer
The American Revolutionary War Living History Center (ARWLHC)
The Historic 1879 Home to the Presidential Culinary Museum and Presidential Service Center  ~ a US Military disabled veterans project

The Inn of the Patriots
301 Cleveland Avenue
Grover, NC 28073

1.704.937.2940 v


LOOKING AHEAD: Questions remain about future of proposed casino

Posted By at Sunday, February 07, 2016


In 2013, The Catabwa Indian Nation petitioned the federal government for the rights to land in the Kings Mountain area to build a $600 million casino off of I-85. Heading into 2016, questions remain about the future of the casino.

Currently, the tribe has a pending application with the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to place 16 acres, off of exit 5 on I-85, in a federal trust for the tribe.

If the bureau approves the application, the tribe will be able to move forward with a 1.8 million-square-foot facility, which would featre a casino and hotel. The $600 million complex could employ upward of 5,000 people, according to initial reports?

Since the casino was first proposed, it has been met with mixed results from the government and general public. Some county and state leaders are in favor of the casino, citing the creation of jobs and economic stimulation. Others have spoken out against the project, mostly noting the dangers of gambling.

In July 2015, the Catawba Indian Nation confirmed it is in talks with Hard Rock International in Orlando about managing the $600 million facility. It would generate about $300 million in its first year and create several thousands of jobs, according to the tribe.

Wallace Cheves, of Sky Boat LLC, the tribe’s development partner in the proposed casino, told the Charlotte Observer in August that, “multiple people worldwide” have approached his company about branding the proposed Catawba casino.

The casino is still being considered by officials in Washington, D.C., and the new year may bring more answers about the proposed future of the casino.


Catawba seeking national brand for N.C. casino project

Posted By at Sunday, July 26, 2015


The proposed Catawba Indian Nation casino in Kings Mountain, N.C., could carry the nationally recognized Hard Rock brand name, say tribal leaders.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris said Friday the tribe is in discussions with Hard Rock International, which operates two casino resorts for the Seminole tribe in Florida. 

A spokesman for Hard Rock International declined to comment on the discussions. “It is the policy of Hard Rock to keep all potential business deals confidential, therefore we cannot confirm or deny any speculation,” a spokesman said in an email to The Herald.  

Wallace Cheves of Sky Boat LLC, the tribe’s development partner in the proposed casino, said “multiple people worldwide” have approached his company about branding the proposed Catawba casino. He declined to comment on discussions with the Seminoles.  

At a meeting Thursday night of the tribe’s economic development board and its executive council, the Seminole tribe’s interest in the Kings Mountain project was discussed, tribal leaders said.  

Harris said getting the right branding, especially one such as the Hard Rock and the Seminoles, would be a significant advantage for the Catawba. Harris said the Seminoles are the “gold standard” for tribal gaming operations and that the Catawba could be able to plug into that experience and benefit “from all the things they have already done.” 

Harris said that while the Catawbas believe their North Carolina casino project has credibility on its own merits, interest by the Seminole tribe “would be a gift” that would give the project an economic development and political boost. 

The addition of a national brand such as Hard Rock Casino could also answer questions from the federal Bureau of Indian affairs, Harris said. The tribe has a pending application before the bureau to place 16 acres in Kings Mountain in a federal trust for the tribe.  

If the land were placed in the trust, the tribe could move ahead with plans for a 1.8-million square-foot facility that would have a casino and hotel. The estimated cost of the project is about $600 million and the complex could employ as many as 4,000 people.  

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and other Tar Heel officials have opposed the Catawba plan.  

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates the only Indian casino in North Carolina, Harrah’s Cherokee, located near the Tennessee border. The Cherokees have made political contributions to McCrory and other North Carolina politicians, Democrats and Republicans.  

One of the concerns expressed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is who would regulate the gaming at the casino, Harris said.  

As part of its 1993 settlement with the federal government and South Carolina, the Catawba Indian Nation agreed not to place itself under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which regulates the conduct of gaming on Indian lands. The act established the National Indian Gaming Commission and a regulatory structure for Indian gaming in the United States. 

Having a branding arrangement with the Seminoles should help answer the question about regulation, Harris said.  

The branding initiatives are part of a continuing effort by the Catawba to create more partnerships among native American tribes, Harris said. When the tribe opened its Rock Hill bingo hall on Cherry Road in spring 2014, it turned to the Lumbee Indians as its contractors to renovate a former grocery store. 

Recent discussions about locating a film studio on the Catawba Indian reservation have also included talks with other tribes, including the Senecas of western New York, Harris said last week. 

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066@rhherald_donw


Catawba Nation waits for BIA decision on off-reservation casino

Posted By at Thursday, January 29, 2015


The Catawba Nation is waiting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take action on its off-reservation casino bid in North Carolina.

The tribe wants to build a $600 million casino on 16 acres in Cleveland County. The land-into-trust application was submitted nearly 15 months ago but there's no timeline for a decision.

Local officials support the project. Some residents -- mainly those with strong religious views -- have been holding meetings to express their opposition to the project.

The tribe is primarily based in South Carolina. But Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act defines a service area for the tribe in North Carolina and South Carolina.

The proposed gaming site falls within the service area. The law requires the BIA to place up to 3,600 acres in trust for the tribe's reservation.

Despite the mandatory nature of the acquisition, the BIA does not typically move quickly. In the case of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, the agency took 18 months to make a decision.


Catawba Indian Nation Casino Gaming Legislation

Posted By at Monday, August 18, 2014


By Graham Cawthon
Published: Thursday, August 14, 2014 at 10:34 AM.

SHELBY - Fifty-two weeks of political finger pointing.

Fifty-two weeks of petitions for and protests against.

Fifty-two weeks of waiting.

And there appears to be much more waiting in store before we know whether Kings Mountain will become home to an expansive 16-acre, 1.8 million square foot Catawba Indian Nation resort and casino, a project that would create 4,000 jobs and 1,500 hotel rooms on site.

The 4,000 job figure from this single project equates to the combined past eight years of new job growth throughout the county, according to data from the Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership. And it would be nearly double the size of the Cleveland County Schools workforce, according to the CCS's website which lists a total employee count at 2,354.

Nearly 3,500 county workers are currently without jobs, according to June 2014 numbers from the N.C. Department of Employment Security, the latest figures available. And that number exceeds 20,000 when combined with nearby counties.

Additional plans for the resort call for a spa, restaurants and retail options on site, and a performance stage equipped for national acts.

From the Taj Mahal to Cleveland County

Its location, right off an otherwise vacant I-85 exit in Kings Mountain, is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The increase in visitor spending is anticipated to create additional hotel, restaurant and retail options off site.

And it could become an even bigger hub of activity during weeks like this, when hundreds of visitors travel to Cleveland County for the American Legion World Series.

The Star previously reported that the county's roughly 600 hotel rooms are booked to capacity for the ALWS. If approved, the resort alone would offer nearly triple the number of available rooms.

"The location made it a prime choice," Catawba Indian Nation Chief Bill Harris told The Star in 2013. "Local leadership was very receptive. We're talking about bringing 4,000 jobs to Cleveland County, making it a travel-tourism destination. We're looking at adding restaurants, shops, hotels, entertainment. And the county can grow with this. ...We're able to come in with this partnership with Cleveland County and North Carolina and provide 4,000 jobs. How can you stand in opposition to that?"

For Brad Friedmutter, with more than 40 years experience as an architect and interior designer, it's an opportunity for him and his team to make Cleveland County a destination, as he's already done for other locations throughout the U.S. and abroad.

The Friedmutter Group, with offices in Macau, Las Vegas and Newport Beach, Calif., has a long list of successes under their belt: from the 3,000-room Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas to the 40-story Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J. And they're no strangers to Native American resorts, having built and designed several from New Mexico to Michigan.

Application process

The decision, which will be based on legal grounds, rests in the hands of the federal government, who will either agree or deny the Catawba's application to put the 16 acres into federal trust.

"The application has been working itself through (the Bureau of Indian Affairs)," David Dear, of the Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership, said on Wednesday. "It has been received very positively by the BIA to this point."

County leaders, while nearly unanimous in their support, have shied from commenting publicly on the project, citing it as an ongoing economic development project and instead referring inquiries to the CCEDP.

To date, only the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates a similar establishment in the state, Harrah's Cherokee located near the Tennessee border.

Harrah's Cherokee hosted the 2014 North Carolina GOP state convention in June. And GOP leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the Catawba plans.

"I've seen no argument to justify it whatsoever,” Gov. Pat McCrory was quoted as saying in September of the Catawba's plans.

More than 100 state House members signed a letter last year opposing the resort. Many of those lawmakers, as well as McCrory, received thousands of dollars in political contributions in recent years from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

McCrory received $4,000 from the Cherokees in 2012 and the EBCI has given a total of more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions to North Carolina politicians.

Should the federal government approve the plans, the state and county would have the opportunity to enter into a revenue agreement with the Catawba tribe, Dear said.

In 2011, the EBCI signed an agreement, or compact, with the state to provide millions of dollars to school districts in exchange for the state allowing live card dealers at Harrah's.

Regional impact

What kind of jobs could a resort bring? It’s unclear exactly, but Harrah’s Cherokee maintains a wide range of jobs, according to positions listed on its website. Those include table game dealers, bartenders, bar helpers, chefs, caterers, barristers, servers, cashiers, hospitality professionals, hosts, multilingual professionals, accountants, surveillance and other security officers, maintenance workers, cleaning professionals, parking clerks, management professionals and more.

"It creates a whole sub-economy of itself," Dear said.

And, he said, it would open the door to countless entrepreneurial opportunities that could create an impact as far away as Charlotte, nearly an hour's drive east.

Among the many letters of support written for the project in the past year by county leaders was one from Cleveland Community College President Dr. Steve Thornburg.

In recent years, CCC has played a close role in training county residents to seek employment with incoming manufacturing and technology industries. That trend, he said, would continue with the resort.

"CCC staff is ready to explore opportunities for degree, diploma, and certificate programs in gaming management, travel and tourism, hotel management, culinary, hospitality, and other related fields," Thornburg wrote in the letter. "The size and scope of (the) project allows us to look at a variety of new programs, as well as enhancements and expansions of existing programs. ...Our Continuing Education Department stands ready to develop customized training programs to suit this project’s unique needs, including table gaming, catering, bartending, and housekeeping."

Congressmen speak up for Catawba

In letters sent earlier this year to the Interior Department, Congressman Jim Moran (D-Virginia), Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.) and former Democratic Congressman and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said now is the time for the federal government to fulfill its trust responsibility and the promises made in the 1993 Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act.

“The Catawbas have been faithful allies of the United States, and yet their lands and rights have been eroded by a combination of federal and state action,” Moran wrote. “It is a familiar story in the long and tragic history of federal Indian policy, but with a twist -the tribe's rights were further undermined by Congress during my service here through passage of the Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1993.”

The 1993 legislation restored the tribe's federal recognition, which the federal government had taken away, but the promise that the Nation has the right to a reservation of up to 4,200 acres never materialized.

“Two decades later, the tribe's reservation is a mere 1,006 acres, with the state of South Carolina working to block the Catawba Tribe at every tum,” Moran wrote.

Cleveland County is one of six North Carolina counties recognized in the service area of the Rock Hill, S.C.-based tribe.

'A darkening of the city'

Elected officials within the city and county have overwhelmingly, and almost unanimously, supported the project from the day news of its existence broke. However, in May, Kings Mountain Councilman Keith Miller penned a 76-page manifesto opposing the project and provided it to The Star.

“I fear the casino may gain control of the city council,” Miller wrote. “The result may be a darkening of the city economically, ethically, spiritually and educationally."

He went on to point fingers at Shelby and county leaders.

“There may be officials in Shelby and elsewhere in the county that may resent Kings Mountain, that think they are smarter and more deserving, and resent the disproportionately large political and economic influence Kings Mountain has. There may be people that would like to see Kings Mountain weakened economically and politically so they can steal control of the lake and other capital assets from the city.”

Miller later apologized at a city council meeting for some of the comments he made.

Community debate

A group known as the Kings Mountain Awareness Group formed earlier this year in opposition to the resort plans. The group's Facebook page regularly shares anti-gambling and anti-casino news and research from throughout the country.

"Our opinion is there are some outside interests trying to stir the situation, locally," Dear said of the opposition movement.

Earlier this summer, roughly 45 members of the group staged a public protest before a regularly scheduled Kings Mountain city council meeting, but then left immediately after the public comment portion of the meeting.

Group members say they want to see local officials rescind their letters of support for the resort, despite the issue being a federal decision.

Area residents were quick to respond to the protest on The Star's Facebook page. And that response, with more than 40 comments, was overwhelmingly in favor of the project.

"This area could definately use the extra jobs," wrote Jeff Frady.

"It amazes me that any working person would protest this," said Judy Smith McCurry. "Can you imagine the jobs and vacant homes in the area that would be filled?"

"All of us that are for the casino should get together and have a rally supporting the Catawba Indian Nation resort and casino," Penny Daniel Weaver wrote.

An online petition in favor of the resort on has attracted roughly 1,400 signatures to date.

News Editor Graham Cawthon can be reached at 704-669-3334, or on Twitter at @GrahamCawthon.


Catawba Indian Nation opens bingo hall in Rock Hill

Posted By at Friday, August 08, 2014


 — Five minutes before the first number was called, three Charlotte women – “old retired broads,” they call themselves – sat ready, waiting.

At their sides were bottles of lemon Lipton iced tea. In front of them were stacks of dollar bills. One of them had a $20.

Those three ladies, all of them friends, were among the 150 players who came to a former Bi-Lo grocery store on Cherry Road in Rock Hill for the grand opening of the Catawba Indian Nation’s bingo hall.

The new hall, met the three Charlotte women’s approval. It’s nice, clean, beautiful, they said.

Best of all, “it’s smoke-free,” Carol Leandro said. “That’s so important.”

Saturday was the first time the Catawbas have offered bingo since 2006 when they closed the Nations in Rock Hill bingo hall amid allegations of money mismanagement, tax problems and competition from the state’s education lottery.

A 1993 land settlement with state and federal government allows the Catawba Indian Nation to offer high-stakes bingo in York County. Construction on the new hall at the Northeast Plaza began in February.

Saturday was a scouting expedition for Leandro, 65, and her friends, Gloria Sekulski, 77, and Veronica Donath, 71. If they enjoyed themselves – even if they didn’t make money – the three retirees said they will likely drive to Rock Hill during the week to play bingo. They said they might even come back at night and use the computer bingo machines.

Leandro and Sekulski have played bingo for decades. Donath said she isn’t that much of a fan. But, what binds them, she said, is “we’re gamblers.”

They went Saturday with enough money to play until “our money runs out,” Sekulski said.

Still, the women are waiting to spend even bigger bucks at a Catawba-run casino. The U.S. Department of the Interior is reviewing the Catawba’s application to put land in a trust, the first step to building a casino in Kings Mountain, N.C.

The tribe is considering its legal options for a casino at its York County reservation. The S.C. Supreme Court has ruled the state’s ban on video poker machines applies on the reservation.

On Saturday Catawba Chief Bill Harris’ focus wasn’t on just the tribe. He honed in on the players themselves.

“Can you feel the positive energy in the room?” he asked. “I can only feel good about this. It’s been a long time coming.”

When he arrived at the bingo hall just before the the doors opened at 1 p.m., the line of people stretched from the sidewalk to the parking lot, Harris said.

“They are excited to see what Catawba has to offer,” he said.

Oneill Vinson, of Indian Land, drove to Rock Hill to earn a “big moment.” She said she has played the game for 16 years.

“It’s a gamble,” said Vinson, 50. “I do it to relax me. I take bingo-for-me time.”

After the doors opened, workers at the Catawba hall moved through the rows of tables, grabbing cash players held in the air to replenish their paper cards for new games. For several hours, the shouts of “Bingo!” rang through the hall that can seat up to 1,300.

The first bingo belonged to Rock Hill’s Barbara Bryson, 49.

There’s no secret to winning the game she’s played for 30 years, she said.

She said she never goes into a game expecting to win, “I just hope.”

On Saturday, she won her first $100.

She aimed to win much more before she reported to work at 5:30 p.m. She works at a different bingo hall.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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Catawba Casino Developer has long ties to Video Poker Industry

Posted By at Monday, February 10, 2014


 — A South Carolina businessman with long ties to the video poker industry is at the center of the Catawba tribe’s effort to build a casino in North Carolina.

The Catawba Indian Nation in September unveiled plans for a casino that could bring 4,000 jobs to a site off Interstate 85 near Kings Mountain, about 30 miles northwest of their reservation in Rock Hill. But the project has faced a backlash from a bipartisan group of elected officials who say they don’t want the casino in North Carolina.

Until now, little has been known about the financial interests behind the $339 million project. But interviews and documents show that a company called Sky Boat LLC, led by Wallace Cheves of Greenville, S.C., is the developer working with the Catawbas.

The project is in a holding pattern as the tribe waits for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to decide whether to place the casino property in trust. But activity continues behind the scenes. Cheves said he has done much of the prep work needed. Sky Boat also has hired lobbyists in Raleigh in an effort to navigate the political opposition.

Cheves spent his early career working in the video poker business before expanding into other gaming ventures, including riverboat gambling. In an interview, he said he has broad gaming experience and a background working with other tribes.

The 40-year-old said he assembled a group of entrepreneurs in 2009 to work with the Catawbas after they put out bids for potential operators. He sees the project as a positive for the tribe and Cleveland County.

From left, Roger Holland, architect; David Dear, Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership; Bill Harris, chief of the Catawba Nation; Wallace Cheves, businessman; and Eddie Holbrook, vice chair of the Cleveland County Board of Commissioners, stand at the site of the proposed casino in Kings Mountain on Friday. TODD SUMLIN —

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“It’s been a team effort all the way,” Cheves said Friday. “We’ve really felt at home here.”

For more than a year, Cheves has been lining up the site, securing financing from former Merrill Lynch bankers, hiring design firms and garnering local support. He said he has other partners but cannot disclose their names because of confidentiality agreements.

The Catawbas’ effort to build in North Carolina comes after laws in South Carolina blocked the tribe’s attempts to build a casino in its home state. The tribe continues to challenge the laws, appearing before the S.C. Supreme Court last month.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris said Friday the tribe chose Cheves’ group after a careful selection process. The hire contrasts with the Eastern Band of Cherokee, which uses a major gaming player, Harrah’s, to operate its casino in western North Carolina.

Harris said the tribe has been surprised by the backlash from Raleigh, where lawmakers have said they don’t want an out-of-state tribe running a casino. The Catawbas, however, point to their aboriginal roots in the state and their tribal service area, which extends into six North Carolina counties.

“Their quick opposition, I think, is what shocked the people in this community,” Harris said. “Someone is coming in and going to place 4,000 jobs in the area.”

‘Project 4,000’

The first step needed for the project is for the federal government to place the Catawbas’ casino land into trust. Once that’s completed, Harris said the development team could open the casino’s first phase in six to eight months.

The tribe would like to offer Class III gaming – the highest level – through a compact with the governor of North Carolina, mimicking the rules followed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Without state approval, Harris said the tribe could still offer Class II gaming, which includes slot machines and some table games.

But the move to expand gambling is controversial. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory opposes entering into a compact, with his office saying he “remains unconvinced that any new casino proposal is in the best interest of North Carolina.” With a compact, the state would receive a portion of the gaming revenue.

Sky Boat has won backing from county officials, who see the project as an economic boost for an area still wrestling with the loss of textile jobs. Supporters call it “Project 4,000” after the number of jobs it would bring.

But in the state capital, the casino’s ties to video poker and its successor, the sweepstakes industry, are only raising more concerns.

“Video poker has been a source of corruption and a challenge for law enforcement in North Carolina, and it’s troubling that this industry keeps looking for ways to expand its presence here,” Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement.

John Rustin, the president of the N.C. Family Policy Council, a leading critic of the project and gambling, said the video poker ties “certainly lend an additional element of great concern about what kind of operation this would be.”

The project has also created tension with the Eastern Band of Cherokee. “We are greatly concerned that this development will negatively impact job growth and revenue at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and for the western region of North Carolina,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said last year.

Cheves defended his background and the qualifications of his group to work with the Catawbas in a legal gaming business.

“Our background is not just video poker,” Cheves said. “It’s gaming. We have a lot of political background and have done a lot of consulting with other tribes. That’s why (the Catawbas) chose our consortium of entrepreneurs, just as Harrah’s was chosen by (the Eastern Band of Cherokee) because of their gaming background.”

Working with ‘poker king’

Cheves said he started working in the gaming industry after graduating from Wofford College with a degree in government in 1995.

In his first job, he worked for the late Fred Collins, known as the “poker king” of South Carolina, before starting his own video poker company, First Class Games.

Cheves said he helped lead a campaign to hold a statewide referendum on video poker, but eventually the games were outlawed in 2000.

Around the same time, Cheves said he ran a company called First Link, which helped pioneer the software for sweepstakes games. Legal challenges loomed in South Carolina, so he moved ahead with another venture: riverboat gambling.

His plans for Georgetown and Colleton counties, however, ran into local opposition. His lawyers prevailed in two state Supreme Court cases before a 2005 law allowed local communities to determine whether they wanted riverboat gambling. Cheves gave up on those locations but now hopes to open riverboat operations in the Charleston area late this year.

Court records show two of his companies paying sizable judgments. In 2007, First Class Games satisfied a $5 million judgment. In another case, a real estate company, Adams Mill Associates, had a $1.3 million judgment entered against it last year, according to court records.

“We live in a litigious society,” Cheves said, adding that the two cases have been settled.

Cheves is also a partner in a company called Segway Gaming Systems of Alabama that provides electronic bingo games. In 2012, Alabama officials confiscated Segway software as well as equipment from other major gaming companies as part of a raid on a bingo hall.

Cheves said Segway was caught up in a broader campaign by Alabama officials against the gaming industry. Segway has no connection to the Catawbas’ casino, he said.

Sky Boat began examining sites for the casino in 2012, including an undisclosed location in Mecklenburg, Cheves said.

Cheves and Harris, the Catawba chief, first met with Cleveland officials on the proposed site about a year ago. They immediately found support, including from County Manager David Dear and commissioner Eddie Holbrook, who said they see the project spurring additional development.

For a project that could ultimately cost as much as $800 million, the developers have a financing commitment from a firm called Stuyvesant Square Advisors, Cheves said. The firm is led by two former Merrill Lynch bankers with extensive experience in the gaming industry, said one of the partners, Frank King.

The firm has worked with tribes from Florida to California and will provide debt financing in phases, King said. When it comes to Indian gaming, he said, tribes more often work with entrepreneurs such as Cheves rather than large gaming companies.

Lobbyists on board

Days after the tribe announced its casino plans, three lobbyists registered in Raleigh to represent a company called Sky Boat NC, an apparent move to take the temperature of lawmakers, even though more than 100 House members had signed a letter of opposition.

The lobbyists: Scott Laster, the former executive director of the state Republican Party; his wife, Kristen Laster; and Jason Deans, former chief of staff to Republican U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry. McCrory’s former legislative liaison, Morgan Beam, has also worked for Sky Boat.

The lobbyists’ contracts expired at the end of 2013, but Cheves said he will hire them again this year.

It’s another move that concerns critics. “Clearly, it shows how interested they are in this project,” said Rustin of the Family Policy Council.

In the meantime, the casino site remains a gravel parking lot surrounded by grass and pine trees. Even so, local resident Peter Wellman drove up Friday when he saw people gathered at the site and asked when he’d be able to start playing. Harris told Wellman he should tell his local lawmakers to support the project.

Cheves believes there is room in North Carolina for another gambling operation. He notes there are more than 5 million adults in the 100-mile ring around the Kings Mountain site.

“Active players like to go to different properties,” he said. “Competition makes us better.”

Just up I-85, there is a Harrah’s billboard beckoning gamblers farther west.

Rothacker: 704-358-5170; Twitter: @rickrothacker Frank: 919-829-4698

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