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Wednesday, 13 April 2016 14:14

Casino board member under investigation

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cherokeeA member of Cherokee’s Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise board is under investigation following a public uproar surrounding her alleged behavior at a Jennifer Nettles concert Feb. 6 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“The behavior that I observed and probably 11,000 other people have observed was inappropriate for someone that represents this tribe on a board,” said Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, who introduced a resolution to relieve board member Angela Kephart of her duties. “That casino is what we rely on.”

The behavior that McCoy referred to was recorded on casino security footage. After Louise Reed, the mother of a casino worker who had complained of ill treatment from Kephart, made a complaint to Tribal Council last month, McCoy and Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown, requested the footage from the casino. 

Portions of the footage also appeared like wildfire on Facebook, though both McCoy and Rose staunchly denied having anything to do with that part of it. 

According to McCoy, the full version of the video shows Kephart and a group of her friends using the Chief’s Suite at the casino and wearing wristbands that would give them, as VIPs, access to free alcohol. Tribal code prohibits TCGE members from accepting anything free from tribal gaming operations. 

Kephart, who former Principal Chief Michell Hicks appointed to the board in the last year of his term, also works as a satellite clinic manager for Cherokee Indian Hospital and is a former Tribal Council member. 

“Those bracelets, the mere fact that she allowed one to be placed on her hand is a violation,” McCoy said. “She conducted herself extremely unprofessionally.” 

Reed’s daughter Samantha Hinojosa, McCoy said, had originally been the server for the group but was reamed out by Kephart after offering to start a tab rather than serving free alcohol. 

“She’s worked there a long time, and she’s had bad days, bad nights before, but nothing compared to what they done to her, the way they talked to her,” said Reed of her daughter Hinojosa. Hinojosa called her that night, crying, Reed said — something that had never happened during the 25-year-old’s five years working at the casino.  

Jose Arellano replaced Hinojosa as the group’s server, and the video clearly shows evidence of sexual harassment against him, McCoy said. 

“When that young man goes to that court and files charges, he’s never going to have to work again,” she said. 

 

Kephart’s story

Kephart, however, gave a different account of the night — if anybody’s being harassed, she told council, it’s her. 

“This video was intended to disparage me and compromise my reputation, but in fact it clearly demonstrates that at no time was my conduct inappropriate,” she said. “This unlawfully obtained video has unfortunately harmed innocent people.” 

Kephart told Tribal Council that she was told the wristbands were to let casino personnel know who was allowed into the suite. As soon as she discovered they were for drinking, she said, “I got the scissors from the host and cut every one of those bracelets off.” 

McCoy doesn’t believe a word of that. 

“She’s a board member,” McCoy said. “She knew full well what those bracelets were for.”

“Not one time inside that suite did I take one drink. One drink. When you say you watched that entire tape, you need to watch it again,” Kephart told McCoy. 

Much of the talk surrounding the video has centered on the physical interactions between the people on camera — the portions posted on the Facebook page Cherokee Rants and Raves show two women making out, with one of the women at a different point in the video dancing up on the male bartender and kissing him as other people intermittently occupy the background of the shot, making out. According to McCoy, the portions of the video not posted on Facebook are even more salacious. 

Kephart did not participate physically nearly as much as her guests, McCoy said, but that is beside the point. 

“She knew that room was going to be available, and she gained access to that room. She invited her friends, and even though she may have participated physically a little, she still did,” McCoy said. “She was within arm’s reach of her guests while they were behaving reprehensibly with a young male employee of the casino.”

Kephart, however, disagrees with McCoy’s assessment of the video’s contents and with the judgment of her behavior. 

“The illegal video clearly demonstrates to any rational observer that my behavior as above reproach,” she said. 

In fact, Kepart says, she feels that she is “being harassed and bullied by people who have positional power.” For evidence of that, she points to October, when the newly seated Principal Chief Patrick Lambert requested her resignation from the board and included her husband in the list of people to lose their jobs with the start of his administration. 

“I think most would agree that I have been mistreated and subjected to a significant amount of harassment,” she said. 

Lambert, meanwhile, says that he “asked her to resign because I know the character of the person. She chose not to.” 

Kephart said she is resigning from her hospital job because she fears her association will “bring adverse effects” to the hospital. However, she is adamant that she will not resign from the board. 

Kephart also pointed out that neither of the employees in question filed a formal complaint against her, which she interprets to mean that nothing untoward happened. 

“This is maliciousness,” she said. “This is an attack on me as a person, on my friends and family and my coworkers, but most importantly my children.”

What weight should a statement receive? 

Becky Walker, a tribal member who keeps a close watch on tribal politics, sees it a different way. 

When Reed first voiced her complaint last month, Chairman Bill Taylor replied that an investigation was underway. The investigation he spoke of was performed by the TCGE board itself, which Kephart sits on, and in a letter dated March 11 the board’s vice chairman Richard Sneed reported that there was no cause for action against Kephart. 

The letter explained that the TCGE and Harrah’s General Manager Brooks Robinson reviewed the tapes and took written statements from Hinojosa and Arellano. 

“There were only a few, brief interactions between Ms. Kephart and Samantha Hinojosa. There was virtually no interaction between Ms. Kephart and Jose Arellano,” the letter reads. “Without audio, we cannot know what was said during these interactions, but based on the video, findings are inconclusive to support the severity of the complaints made by Samantha Hinojosa. There were possible inappropriate actions by other individuals in the suite concerning Jose Arellano, but none of these actions, according to surveillance tape provided to the TCGE, involved Ms. Kephart.”

But does that mean the employees’ statements carry no weight, Walker asked? 

“It says here the employees have a statement, right?” Walker asked. “So does that mean that the TCGE didn’t even take into account what they said at all? They just totally ignored what they said? … how do employees feel like they can have any type of recourse when that’s the type of response you get?”

As Walker concluded her comments, applause broke out from the audience. 

 

Litigation and investigation 

But anyone can say anything, Kephart said, and what Reed said in council last month was defamatory and untrue. As a result, Kephart has filed a lawsuit against Reed in tribal court. 

In the lawsuit, filed April 6, the day before the April council meeting, Kephart alleges that, as a result of Reed’s statement and “subsequent reactions by the tribal community,” she has “suffered monetary and economic loss since Plaintiff (Kephart) may have to resign from her position as a professional in the medical field and may lose her position as a board member for the TCGE.”

She’s asking for damages in excess of $10,000 in addition to attorney’s fees and court costs. 

As Reed stood to make her own comments during the April 7 council meeting, Taylor advised her that the suit had been filed and she may want to refrain from commenting. But Reed declined, maintaining that she had “every right” to say what she said last month. 

“We allow people to get away with stuff they shouldn’t be getting away with,” Reed said. “We need to stand up for what’s right for our people.”

There was no shortage of emotion and conviction-filled statements in council last week. But, according to some councilmembers, there was a shortage of facts. 

“Everybody talks about Facebook. I don’t do Facebook. I think it’s a gossip mill,” said Councilmember Tommye Saunoooke, of Painttown. “I haven’t seen the tape, don’t want to see it, but I do want the facts.” 

Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, agreed that there was more fact-finding yet to do and said he doesn’t want a repeat of what happened with the Tribal Gaming Commission board. Tribal Council passed a resolution, introduced by Lambert, on the day they were inaugurated to remove the three members sitting at the time. A protest hearing held in March upheld the decision, but Wachacha believes more of that discussion should have taken place before the initial decision. 

“I didn’t feel like we provided them due process up front,” he said. “I feel like we put the cart before the horse.” 

McCoy nevertheless moved to pass the resolution on the spot, with a second from Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown. Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown, made a competing move to table the resolution for further investigation, which Wachacha seconded. 

The move to table prevailed, with support from Rose, Wachacha, Taylor, Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, and Councilmembers Travis Smith, Anita Lossiah and Alan “B” Ensley. McCoy’s move to pass drew support from Crowe, Saunooke and Councilmembers Marie Junaluska and Richard French. 

Following the vote, McCoy grilled Taylor on his intentions going forward. 

“I requested an investigation. I’m going to go ahead and charge you with sometime in the next couple of days I would like for you to hire an investigator,” she told Taylor, specifying that the investigator should be someone independent, not tied to the tribe or the casino or the TCGE in any way. 

“We’ll get to the bottom of it,” Taylor responded. 

“There will be an investigation?” McCoy responded. 

“Correct,” said Taylor. 

McCoy said in a follow-up interview that she was not disappointed with the vote. 

“The move to table did keep the issue alive,” she said. “It is open and on the floor as we speak. I think the public will place enough pressure on this council.”

The casino declined to comment on the situation or to provide documents related to the initial investigation. 

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