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Assistant manager leaves casino; was top Arapaho on staff

Jan 9, 2018 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Wind River Hotel and Casino assistant manager Andrea Clifford is resigning, effective Jan. 12, from her role in the Northern Arapaho Tribe's primary economic resource.

Four years ago, Clifford began being groomed to eventually succeed Jim Conrad as the casino's CEO.

But she told The Ranger on Thursday that she'd need "another three to five years" in order to feel comfortable running the casino as well as Conrad currently does.

New business

Instead, Clifford will now leave to start her own consulting company that she said will provide human resources help for tribal programs on the Wind River Indian Reservation and across Indian country.

"I've gained a lot of skills that I'm willing to go out and share now (with) our tribe or elsewhere in Indian country," she said. "I'm pretty excited to go on to this new adventure."

Clifford has a master's degree in public administration from the University of Wyoming. Before becoming the casino's assistant manager, she helmed the business's human resources division for seven years. Clifford also chaired numerous Northern Arapaho General Council meetings, ran for a seat in Wyoming state house, and sat on the Fremont County Commission before deciding not to seek re-election in 2016.

No more assistant

Conrad does not plan to advertise to replace Clifford as assistant general manager; instead he will eliminate the position while continuing to mentor existing casino managers, who will have the option of entering a general manager training program he's creating.

Despite leaving her post, Clifford said she will continue actively defending the casino from detractors within the tribe who claim the venture's management is either corrupt or inept.

"I'll stand up for what's right and defend the casino," she said. "Even after I'm gone, I'm Arapaho. I always will be. I'll support it and attend general council (meetings)."

The number of employees at the casino has grown 10-fold since Clifford began work there in 2005, when 62 employees were on board.

Clifford said she's most proud of "putting our people to work" over the past decade; over that time roughly $250 million has been paid out in wages, benefits and taxes.

She's also proud of instituting wellness programs that aid employees with issues of addiction, domestic relations, and their own health.

For the last six years, the casino has had a registered nurse on staff who has helped educate those with "high-risk conditions."

"We've been tenacious in efforts to help our employees," Clifford said.

The casino has also emphasized managerial training, on which Clifford said the casino has spent nearly $1 million each year.

As she leaves, Clifford is particularly grateful for the mentorship she received from Conrad, as well as the support from former members of the Northern Arapaho Business Council "that didn't micromanage us," she said.

When the casino has good communication with the NABC, the casino is better able to support tribal programs, Clifford said.

"Since Jim and I've been there, we've given the tribal council $50 million," she said.

General council strife

During their tenure, Clifford and Conrad have been met with distrust among some members of the tribe's general council during meetings.

Clifford said she's faced down "intimidation, harassment and threats" during her tenure, but it is now time to put the needs of her family first.

"They've been by my side, and it's been tough on them too," she said.

After butting heads with Clifford while on the NABC, Keith Spoonhunter has repeatedly called for a forensic audit of the casino.

Other tribal members - sometimes disgruntled ex-employees or their family members - have routinely call for a deposition of Conrad and Clifford via the general council.

Those efforts culminated in a September vote by the general council, which ordered the NABC to fire the managers within 30 days.

The pair of managers kept their positions after the NABC was unable to get a majority in support of the termination.

"It's concerning that we have a small group of people ... that think they're qualified to run a multi-million dollar company, when they're not," Clifford said. "If they force out Jim, it would be detrimental to not only our patrons, but also to tribal jobs. ... I'm still going to protect him. His passion is for the people. He's made a lot of money for us, and the banks respect him."

When the general council met in September to consider terminating both Conrad and Clifford, tribal members received a letter from CIT Bank, which urged the council not to fire the managers.

CIT Bank refinanced the casino's debt in 2009, and the loan matures in October 2019.

That date was extended three times due to what CIT vice president Michael Parisien described as Conrad's "solid business acumen and can-do attitude to sure compliance."

"Compliance is critical to any lending relationship," Parisien said in the letter.

Parisien also mentioned the tribe's financing of a new 90-room hotel wing using internally generated cash flow, as opposed to debt from CIT. He said the tribe's "ability to independently fund a project with (its) own money was an accomplishment that few gaming operators are able to achieve."

Clifford said she believes much of the distrust aimed at the casino's management can be explained by the "historical trauma" suffered by American Indians, which causes them to be wary of people in positions of power.

"We're an unhealthy people -- full of bitterness," she said. "When we forgive, can we have open hearts and open minds."

She said better communication between tribal members and casino officials could hopefully help clear some distrust.

"I'm committed to remaining hopeful," she said.

Clifford said she now wants to "empower the silent majority" that appreciates the casino's economic impact in order to deter future efforts to derail the casino's current structure.

Clifford did fire a parting shot at "certain regulators" within the casino that "don't have that best interest of the casino and the tribe at heart."

While saying that she "doesn't want to name any names," Clifford said some are only interested in using their jobs to help their families.

"There are individual regulators who are falsely using their positions for their own personal ambitions, which is dangerous and harmful to the tribe," Clifford said.

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