Absentee Shawnee governor resigns, warns of financial woes

Little Axe, Oklahoma (AP) 1-08

The governor of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe is blaming her departure on her fellow elected officials and says the group’s Thunderbird Casino may not generate any profit until it retires overdue debts.

In a letter, Gov. Jennifer Onzahwah wrote that the situation is so bad that the casino could not pay a gambler a $1,920 jackpot until the following day.

“The casino has been left in dire straits!” Onzahwah wrote.

Onzahwah quit abruptly during early January, six months into her two-year term. She alleged that Lt. Gov. Scott Miller and other elected officials had undermined her.

“I believe that I’ve put up with your defiant attitudes long enough,” she wrote in a letter obtained by The Oklahoman.

Miller released a statement recently confirming Onzahwah’s resignation and his ascension to her post. However, the statement didn’t address Onzahwah’s claims.

“I will attempt to address challenges that the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma may be facing,” Miller said.

In early 2005, Oklahoma voters approved a state question that expanded gambling in tribal casinos.

The Absentee Shawnee casino, then known as Thunderbird Wild Wild West Casino, used dancing girls and a marketing blitz to attract gamblers by the thousands to its remote location on Oklahoma Highway 9 near Lake Thunderbird.

By June 2005, a newly elected governor fired the casino manager, ended the marketing campaign and took over its operations himself.

Profits declined and the tribe’s finances went into a freefall when two larger tribal casinos opened nearby. The Riverwind Casino in Goldsby and FireLake Grand Casino near Shawnee depleted Thunderbird Casino’s customer base.

Absentee Shawnee members had been receiving quarterly $250 checks from the casino, but those payments stopped last spring.

The casino is required to pay 6 percent of its electronic machine proceeds and 23 percent from its card table profits as taxes to the tribe.

Those payments have dropped by about 60 percent since 2005, according to the tribe’s monthly newsletters.

Onzahwah’s letter indicates the payments are in further jeopardy.

“It looks like taxes will be the last thing to get paid because we’re still 60 days overdue on accounts payable,” the former governor wrote.

Onzahwah said tribe officials should explore closing the casino’s restaurant and laying off nonessential employees.

“More cuts will have to be made here at the (tribal) complex,” she wrote.