Tribal court hears challenge over Foxwoods Resort Casino's hiring of ex-convict

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MASHANTUCKET, Connecticut — The felony conviction of a former Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation official should have kept him from receiving a management job at the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino, an attorney for another tribal member argued Thursday.

The former tribal councilor, Steven Thomas, received the personnel position at the country's largest casino last December as he was awaiting sentencing for stealing $177,000 from the tribe.

The tribe, which had labeled the federal prosecution an affront to its sovereignty, is now being forced to defend the hiring of a convict with close ties to tribal leadership. The case unfolding in tribal court on the tiny reservation in southeastern Connecticut is airing internal strife over the decision at a time when the tribe is pursuing casino projects in other states and attempting to revitalize its flagship Foxwoods property.

The challenge was filed by Charlene Jones, a tribal member who applied for the same job at Foxwoods and said she was passed over despite having stronger qualifications than Thomas. She said many other tribal members are upset over the hiring of Thomas.

"It baffles the mind," Jones said outside court. "He actually is the first face that our new employees are seeing for orientation."

The arguments at Thursday's pretrial hearing turned on whether Thomas could have been considered "in good standing" at the time he was hired. A tribal court judge took the arguments under advisement; it was not clear when a ruling would be issued.

Ursula Haerter, director of the Mashantucket Employee Rights Office, told the judge that being in good standing is the key requirement to being hired under the law that gives preference to tribal members. She said her office abided by guidance from tribal elders that a candidate could be considered to have that status as long as they had not been banished.

"At the time of hire, the incumbent was not banished, and therefore entitled to preference," said Haerter, who was arguing for the judge to dismiss the claim from Jones outright.

In February, Thomas was sentenced to three months of home confinement. The following month he was banished from tribal land for one year, with exclusions for his home on the reservation and his work at Foxwoods.

An attorney for Jones, Henry Sockbeson, said other tribal agencies have looked at the question of good standing differently. When the tribe was still issuing member stipends — payments that totaled more than $100,000 annually per adult but have since been suspended because of a financial downturn — he said members accused of a felony were ineligible to receive them until their cases were resolved in court.

"You shouldn't hire a person who is convicted of stealing from you to work for you in another position less than a year later," Sockbeson told the judge.

Thomas was convicted of theft after admitting that he misapplied the money by falsifying time cards in 2007, when he was assistant director of the tribe's natural resources department. A judge spared him prison time at sentencing, saying she was impressed by his reform before the investigation.

His brother, former tribal chairman Michael Thomas, is serving an 18-month prison sentence for embezzling more than $100,000 from the tribe.

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