Quapaw Charges Former Chairman John Berrey with Embezzlement, Conspiracy

Quapaw Charges Former Chairman John Berrey with Embezzlement, Conspiracy
John Berrey (file) (Wesley Hitt)

The Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma filed criminal charges on Friday against its former long-time chairman, John L. Berrey, for abuse of office, conspiracy and embezzlement.

“The investigation revealed Berrey consistently abused his authority as Chairman by using tribal funds and assets for his own personal benefit and the benefit of those around him,” according to a news release from the Quapaw Nation, owner of the Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff. 

“Accounting records, cell phone data, computer data and text messages show the tribe paid for private jets to fly Berrey, his family and friends to concerts and events. These concerts and events were not related to any contract and were of no benefit to the tribe or casino player development.”

Berrey, who was chairman for nearly 20 years, denied allegations of wrongdoing. Through a spokesman, he said the complaint should have stayed within the tribe.

“It’s awkward that the people who brought this complaint want it to be out in the broader public,” Berrey said Monday. “There’s a way to address complaints in the tribal government and that’s where it ought to stay. This is all politically motivated, and it’s false.”

Berrey said he plans to run for vice chairman of the tribe in July.

The charges, filed in the Court of the Quapaw Nation (The O-Gah-Pah), stem from an audit initiated in June 2020 by the Quapaw Nation Gaming Authority and covered 2017 through 2020, according to the news release.

Berrey is facing 11 criminal charges, and Quapaw Nation’s former secretary treasurer, Tamara Smiley-Reeves, has seven pending charges against her, the news release said.

In addition to criminal charges, Berrey, Smiley-Reeves and seven others have four civil complaints against them, accusing them of fraud, conversion and unjust enrichment. 

The Quapaw Nation is seeking $7 million plus other damages from the defendants. 

“The complaints outline various levels of involvement and collaboration between the individuals to pay one another illegal bonuses totaling millions of dollars and illegally increase base pay and benefits,” the release said. “The investigation also found deliberate attempts to conceal the unlawful behavior by either omitting information from official meeting minutes or keeping information in official tribal records intentionally vague.”

The complaint said Berrey and Reeves allowed more than 70 company credit cards to be issued to employees, agents, consultants and vendors not employed by Downstream Casino Resort or the Quapaw Nation. 

According to the complaint, casino money went for personal use such as: 

  • private use air travel valued at more than $100,000; 
  • tickets to Kansas City Chiefs football games, Kansas City Royals baseball games, Arkansas Razorbacks sporting events and concerts valued at more than $100,000; and 
  • free meals and alcohol valued at more than $100,000.

Quapaw Nation Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd, who was elected in July, said the defendants "treated the Quapaw Nation and its assets as a personal bank account and playground."

"While I’m saddened at the depths of criminality discovered, the Quapaw Nation is a nation of laws, and no one is above them," Byrd said. "I’m pleased charges have been filed against these individuals, who will now face the consequences of their dishonesty and greed. For too long, the defendants treated the Quapaw Nation and its assets as a personal bank account and playground."

A statement issued by Berrey's attorney, Rory Dilweg of Ocotillo Law and Policy Partners LLP of Boulder, Colorado, said the Quapaw Nation has "historically worked out its differences, political and otherwise, within its own established grievance process, and preferred never to disparage itself or its members to the broader public."

"Berrey made good money like any CEO of a billion-dollar company would make," the statement said. "But his pay was always approved by the Quapaw Business Committee; he couldn’t do anything alone."

"My number one goal now is to allay the fears and anxiety that our tribal members are feeling over all of this nonsense," Berrey said, according to the statement. "I'll beat it in court, and I'll return to the Business Committee for the good of our people."

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