FBI: Tribal leader admitted to personal purchases

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — A former chairman of the tribe that owns Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino admitted to investigators that he used a tribe-issued credit card for personal expenses and knew that was prohibited, an FBI agent testified Tuesday at his theft trial.

Michael Thomas is accused of improperly charging about $100,000 in personal expenses on a credit card issued by his Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Prosecutors say the charges included rides by a limousine service to doctor’s appointments for his mother and television and satellite radio for himself.

“He admitted to me he did utilize the card for personal expenses,” said FBI agent Robert Bornstein. “He knew that personal expenses were prohibited pursuant to a tribal resolution which had the power of law. He admitted personal expenses in violation of the resolution continued.”

Prosecutors finished presenting their evidence Tuesday, the trial’s second day. Thomas’ attorney called no witnesses. Closing arguments were scheduled for Wednesday.

A defense attorney, Paul Thomas, pointed out that nearly 90 percent of the expenses, or $89,000, was for the rides for doctor’s appointments for Thomas’ mother.

“He didn’t tell you if he believed those were improper, did he?” Thomas asked

“No,” Bernstein said.

Thomas said Monday during his opening statement that the jury will have to decide whether the credit card charges really were disallowed.

“Was it impermissible to charge travel on behalf of his sick, dying mother to get treatment?” said Thomas, who is not related to his client.

The tribe has transportation services available for members who need to travel for medical appointments, according to testimony.

Thomas’ attorney said the service was limited and noted Thomas’ mother had to be picked up at 5 a.m. for her dialysis treatments. Prosecutors pointed to testimony that the service tried to accommodate schedules and that Thomas lived nearby and could have driven his mother in his Cadillac Escalade, which was the same type of vehicle used by the limo service.

The riches from the tribe’s casino once made its tiny reservation in southeastern Connecticut one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. The charges in question were made on a tribe-issued American Express card between 2007 and 2009, when the tribe entered a period of austerity as the casino began to struggle with the effects of the recession and increased competition.

Thomas made the charges during a period when the tribe was laying off employees, witnesses testified.

Prosecutors argued Thomas was under financial distress, showing tax returns indicating Thomas had income in 2008 of $863,000, which fell to $354,000 in 2009. Thomas told investigators his finances were under stress due to his decline in salary and a 2004 divorce, Bornstein testified.

Thomas also had numerous overdrafts in his bank account, Bornstein said. Thomas’ defense argued he was able to make large deposits to cover his expenses.

Prosecutors sought to show jurors a photo of Thomas’ large house, saying they wanted jurors to see the expenses were personal. Paul Thomas objected, saying the purpose really was to show that his client lives in what appears to be a mansion, and Judge Janet Bond Arterton sustained the objection.

Thomas, the tribe’s chairman from 2003 to 2009, has pleaded not guilty to one count of theft from an Indian tribal organization and two counts of theft concerning an Indian tribal government receiving federal funds.

He was indicted in January along with his brother, tribal treasurer Steven Thomas. The brother, who is being tried separately in November, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he stole more than $700,000 from 2005 to 2008 when he was assistant director of the tribe’s natural resources department.

Bornstein also testified Tuesday about $6,800 in computer equipment Thomas purchased. Paul Thomas pressed him on how he knew the computers weren’t being used for tribal business, and Bornstein said the tribe provided computers.

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