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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Unlikely Alliance Pushing Gaming; A Businessman With A Criminal Record And A Harvard-Trained Lawyer Try To Bring Indian Casinos To Pa.

By Carrie Budoff and John Sullivan
Inquirer Staff Writers

January 4, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

The Delaware Tribe and Delaware Nation, forced out of Pennsylvania 200 years ago by settlers, showed up unexpectedly at the state Capitol in May and made a gambling pitch that few people saw coming.

But it came as no surprise to the people who knew Luis Figueredo and Herman "Pete" Dennis - the unlikely partners behind the most serious attempt ever to open the state to Indian gaming.

Figueredo is a Harvard-educated lawyer from Miami. Dennis is a self-styled businessman with a criminal record and ties to the American Indian community.

A closer look at their relationship - which dates to the 1980s and includes a string of failed business deals involving a New Mexico tribe - provides insight into how two Oklahoma tribes found their way back to Pennsylvania with a casino bid that last month stalled Gov. Rendell's plan to legalize slot machines.

It was Figueredo who saw an opportunity for Indian gaming in Pennsylvania and asked Dennis to set up a meeting with the Delawares. Four years later, a group of investors led by Figueredo has assembled a team of politically wired lawyers and lobbyists who have the full support of one of the state's most powerful lawmakers, Sen. Vincent Fumo (D., Phila.).

Fumo's insistence on providing the tribes with two gambling licenses as part of a larger slots bill prevented a deal from being struck last month between Rendell and legislative leaders. Fumo said that if the state refused to include them - on the condition that they be taxed like any other gambling venture - it was rolling the dice with unregulated Indian gaming.

Few lawmakers bought the argument. Rendell has promised to revive the slots bill later this month without Indian gaming.

No matter what happens in Harrisburg, Figueredo and his investors vow not to go away.

They say they could receive federal approval within 18 months for an electronic bingo parlor, which Pennsylvania could not tax because it would qualify as a less regulated class of gaming under federal rules.

The tribes also can continue to pursue a land claim, a lengthy and costly process. They say settlers stole 315 acres of tribal land in Northampton County - a claim that if proven would allow them to open a casino somewhere in Pennsylvania.

The partnership that served as the seed for the Pennsylvania bid dates to the mid-1980s. Figueredo - young, ambitious and looking to build a niche in federal Indian law - was brought in to make a business pitch to a California tribe. Dennis was the tribe's economic adviser, a role he has held with different tribes over the years.

Figueredo, after researching the Delawares' historical ties to Pennsylvania, approached Dennis in about 1999 with a question to pose: Are the tribes interested in reclaiming land in Pennsylvania to pursue gaming?

Dennis, who has described himself to business associates as a Pamunkey Indian, once again tapped into his connections within the American Indian community. He acted as the facilitator, and is now a paid consultant to the investment group that is trying to bring gaming to Pennsylvania, Delaware Casino Development and Management L.L.C., Figueredo said.

"A lot of Native American tribes trust Pete Dennis," Figueredo said. "You need to have some kind of credibility because there is an inherent distrust. He is an Indian and he is honest."

Some in the Santo Domingo Pueblo of New Mexico think differently. What started as a close alliance about 1990 between Dennis and the tribe ended in 1997 when the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs evicted him from Pueblo land and the tribal court barred him from returning.

"I sure as hell would hate to see any tribe get into the situations we did," said Santo Domingo Gov. Everett Chavez, who was involved in the effort to force Dennis out of the Airstream trailer he occupied on tribal land. "He cost us a lot of money and he owes us money."

Dennis declined repeated requests for comment.

Figueredo said Dennis' break from the Santo Domingo Pueblo had to do with tribal politics: one faction liked Dennis; the other did not. But, he said, Dennis is not "without controversy."

Dennis pleaded no contest to a bank fraud charge in 1987 for his involvement in a condominium-financing scheme in Florida. He served a jail term of nearly three months, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Figueredo said he checked out Dennis' criminal record and had no problem with it.

Before the relationship with the 5,000-member Santo Domingo Pueblo turned sour, Dennis enjoyed the type of access to tribal leaders that allowed him to make more than a half-dozen business pitches over the years.

All had a common thread: None came to fruition. The list included a landfill, retail and housing project, and a mobile-home development.

One proposal that moved beyond concept was a sludge-composting facility to be operated by Condor Environmental N.M. Inc., a company in which Dennis was a principal and Figueredo served as treasurer of the board of directors.

Condor agreed to pay $280,000 a year starting in January 1993 to lease about 100 acres, tribal officials said. Within two years, the federal government terminated the lease because no money was ever paid.

Tribal officials estimate the outstanding balance to be at least $600,000.

A man who invested in the plan, Richard Hevner, a senior vice president at Prudential Securities in Philadelphia, said he and others pulled out of the deal after losing money.

"We were putting a lot of money in and didn't see much for it," said Hevner, who said Prudential was not involved in the deal. Hevner said Dennis was spending money on things such as ceremonial buffalo for the tribe, rather than the plant.

"I wasn't aware of buffalo, but I wouldn't be surprised," Figueredo said. "They would make demands and you couldn't tell them no."

Figueredo called the outstanding rent balance a "disputed issue." Dennis told Benny Star, a Dennis ally who at the time was the tribal governor, that he was "having a real difficulty bringing in an investor," so he could not make the rent, Figueredo said. "Then the governor essentially forgave the rent." Star's successor refused to forgo the rent, he added.

Dennis attempted other ventures, some with Figueredo's help.

They were both directors of Santo Domingo Development Co., which proposed working with the Pueblo on a retail and housing development to complement a casino planned for nearby lands. It fell through.

They tried developing a landfill in New Mexico. But then a Pennsylvania Crime Commission report surfaced, alleging that one of their business partners had ties to organized crime, Figueredo said. "We didn't feel comfortable moving forward," he said.

By 1997, Star was no longer governor, and Dennis had fallen out of favor with the new leadership.

"These deals - they were too good to be true. And sure enough, none of it was true," Chavez said. "We put our foot down and forced the ouster of Pete Dennis and any other businesses that were proposed."

Officials of the tribe and of the Bureau of Indian Affairs moved in on July 9, 1997, to remove Dennis from the land he leased and repossess the trailer he used.

The tribal council gave Dennis permission in 1995 to occupy the land for five years, in exchange for providing security and maintenance of the site, according to a 1995 letter that Star wrote to Dennis.

"The tribe did wrong to him," Star said. "Pete Dennis is a good man. I can say that over and over again."

Soon enough, the tribal politics in New Mexico would not matter. Within two years, Dennis and Figueredo had turned their attention to Pennsylvania.

Figueredo said the Pennsylvania proposal should not be judged on the past failures of businesses in which he was involved.

"The fact is, we tried everything to bring industry out there," Figueredo said. "Nobody wanted to take it on."

Figueredo said he absorbed deep financial losses over the years - about $100,000 alone in unpaid legal fees for work on Condor Environmental.

"I have done a lot of work for these companies and would never get paid for it," he said. When asked why he does it, Figueredo said: "I am a minority. Quite frankly, anytime you do research and go out to the Pueblos and see how they live, you would do it, too."

Figueredo grew up in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium, raised by a father who quit school at eighth grade and a mother who arrived in the United States from Puerto Rico at 17. He attended Brandeis University and Harvard Law School before moving to Miami, where, he said, "being a Latin male, I could succeed."

And he did. By 24, he was working as counsel to then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham. Now, he is legal counsel to the City of South Miami.

With his latest venture, Figueredo said, there should be no concern about his partners - although he would not say much about them. Kevin Feeley, spokesman for Delaware Casino Development and Management L.L.C., confirmed that Richard Powell, whose family has a financial interest in the King of Prussia mall, is also an investor.

If the investment group wins the right to bring casino gambling to Pennsylvania, and it needs to undergo background checks, Figueredo said, "the whole team will pass."

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