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Former casino executives owe California tribe $8 million

The tribe says the former employees opened a secret credit card to fund lavish vacations and even stole from a tribe-sponsored Christmas gift fund for children.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Accused of using a “secret credit card” to fund extravagant vacations and pilfer from a federally recognized tribe in Northern California, two former casino executives suddenly find themselves $8 million in the hole.

Rather than fight fraud and racketeering charges brought by the Berry Creek Rancheria of Maidu Indians, former employees Deborah Howard and Jesse Brown have decided to wholly ignore the tribe’s 2020 lawsuit. Nearly 16 months later, a federal court in California says it has no choice but to side with the tribe.

According to the tribe, between 2011 and 2016 the couple charged over $1.3 million on a secret credit card, pulled over $1 million in cash from a tribe-operated smoke shop and stole from a fund meant to buy Christmas gifts for kids. In addition, the tribe claims their ex-chief financial officer and tribal administrator gave themselves unwarranted raises to fuel their “burgeoning lavish lifestyles.”

The heart of the case is a credit card opened in 2011 under the tribe’s name that was used to fund a bevy of vacations and entertainment tickets.

Statements provided by the tribe show the credit card was used for hotel stays in Las Vegas, skiing trips in Lake Tahoe, a jaunt to Disneyland and tens of thousands on professional sporting events ranging from NASCAR to Ultimate Fighting Championship events. The tribe says the over 1,000 unauthorized credit card purchases were finally revealed during a 2016 audit.

“This discreet credit card was used to cover all sorts of exorbitant personal expenditures, many of which are entertainment or travel-based in nature,” the tribe said in court. “These purchases relate to everything from premiere concert tickets for both a rapper named G-Eazy and a country-western singer named Kenny Chesney, to getaways to Napa and Calistoga, to stays at (presumably) the penthouse suites at some of the finest casinos in Las Vegas.”

During multiple court hearings and filings, which the defendants skipped or declined to respond to, the tribe submitted statements and accounting records to bolster their request for actual and treble damages. The tribe and its lawyers at Williams & Cochrane of Sacramento also asked the court to tack on interest to the eye-popping sum allegedly charged by the defendants.  

The lack of defense from Howard and Brown resulted in a slam dunk for the tribe and the casino it operates outside of Oroville, approximately 70 miles north of Sacramento.

Last month, a magistrate judge said the tribe’s interstate commerce claims were strong, noting the misappropriated funds were spent on travel to Las Vegas. In a 10-page order, he recommended the defendants repay $8.8 million plus 7% interest.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge John Mendez adopted the recommendations and entered the plaintiff’s request for default judgment.   

Aside from the credit card fraud, the tribe claims the couple used stolen money to open a clothing boutique and “upscale full-service bar” elsewhere in the county after they quit the casino.

Deborah Howard, also known as Deborah Brown, and Jesse Brown did not file contact information with the court and couldn’t be reached by press time. However, Deborah Howard denied the tribe’s allegations in a 2020 interview with the Sacramento Bee.

The order from Judge Mendez, a George W. Bush appointee, gives the tribe 30 days to clarify how much interest it wants in addition to the $8.8 million judgment.

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