Chairman Cedric Cromwell of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe addresses the #StandWithMashpee rally at the U.S. Capitol on November 14, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Leader of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe indicted on federal charges
Accusations tied to Donald Trump’s attacks on People of the First Light
Friday, November 13, 2020

Just days after renewing criticism of Donald Trump and his administration’s policy failures, the leader of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was indicted on federal bribery and extortion charges.

Chairman Cedric Cromwell was arrested on Friday, according to documents filed in federal court in Massachusetts. He and a co-defendant, a non-Indian named David DeQuattro, are being accused of stealing from the tribe, whose fight to save its reservation has been a rallying cry in Indian Country and a sign of the Trump administration’s failure to meet its trust obligations.

“Many American Indians face a host of difficult financial and social issues. They require — and deserve — real leadership,” U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in a news release on Friday. “But it appears that Cromwell’s priority was not to serve his people, but to line his own pockets.”

The federal charges are directly connected to the tribe’s homeland struggles, a dispute that has drawn the attention of the president himself. Last year, Trump tried to derail legislation that protects the reservation by employing racist language.

“Trump had been tweeting about my tribe,” Cromwell said on Sunday during a session hosted by the National Congress of American Indians. “Very negative things.”

When the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill anyway, the Trump administration took additional steps to stop the tribe from exerting sovereignty over its ancestral territory. In March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking a hold in tribal communities across the nation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed Cromwell that the reservation was going to be taken out of trust.

The action was virtually unprecedented. Not since the disastrous termination era of federal policy has the United States attempted to disestablish a tribal reservation.

A federal judge later blasted the Department of the Interior for reversing course on a such a cornerstone of self-determination. The reservation, which comprises about 321 acres in southeastern Massachusetts, remains in trust as a result of ongoing litigation.

But with the results of the historic election showing Native voters across the nation ousting Trump in resounding numbers, a sense of hope is slowly returning.Democratic president-elect Joe Biden has vowed to “stand with Mashpee” and protect all tribal land rights.

“I’m glad to see he’s going,” Cromwell said of Trump, who has not yet conceded to Biden.

With the charges coming a week after Trump’s loss at the polls, defense attorney Timothy R. Flaherty voiced skepticism about the announcement. The indictment comes amid National Native American Heritage Month and on the eve of Thanksgiving, a holiday that is directly tied to the assistance the Wampanoag people provided to European settlers some 400 years ago.

“The timing is curious,” Flaherty told Indianz.Com on Friday afternoon.

Flaherty said Cromwell is awaiting a initial appearance before a federal judge on Friday afternoon. He anticipates his client being released as he prepares to fight the charges.

“Cedric Cromwell has served the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe honorably for more than a decade and has successfully managed the tribe’s land-into-trust and self-determination process, while building extensive infrastructure for the tribe’s benefit for future generations,” he said.

“He’s a man of principle, a man of faith and a transformational leader,” said Flaherty, a criminal defense attorney based in Boston, the state capital. “He denies these allegations and will present a vigorous defense.”

Federal authorities, however, paint a different portrait of the situation. They say Cromwell abused his authority and stole from his own people as the tribe pursued a gaming facility on its reservation.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe: Thanksgiving

“Instead of working honestly on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoags as their duly elected representative, Cedric Cromwell is accused of using his position as Chairman of the Tribe to enrich himself by extorting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and engaging in a conspiracy with David DeQuattro to commit bribery,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the Special Agent in Charge of the Boston Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “These allegations are extremely troubling and indicate a disdain for the rule of law.”

According to the 23-page indictment, Cromwell accepted bribes in connection with the development of the stalled First Light Resort and Casino. He was allegedly given nearly $58,000 in payments and other items of value by DeQuattro between July 2014 and May 2017.

The majority of the payments given to Cromwell were in the form of $10,000 checks, the indictment reads. He was given a total of five checks during the period in question, totaling $50,000, the indictment states.

Cromwell also accepted gym equipment, which was delivered to his home in 2016, and a hotel suite in Boston the following year, according to the charges. According to authorities, the chairman wanted the room to celebrate his birthday.

“I am going to have a special guest with me,” Cromwell allegedly told DeQuattro via text message, according to the document. Federal authorities, in their release on Friday, described the person as the chairman’s “mistress.”

An artist’s rendering of the First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts. Image from Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

In exchange for the alleged bribes, Cromwell allegedly directed the tribe’s gaming authority to pay DeQuattro for design and architecture projects related to the casino. The amount is staggering: nearly $5 million, according to the indictment.

The First Light project, whose name reflects the tribe’s long ties to the Northeastern seaboard, has never gotten off the ground amid opposition from non-Indian residents in the city of Taunton. The federal government, during the Barack Obama era, supported the tribe’s land efforts.

In response to the lawsuit, the Trump administration backed away from the tribe. According to the Department of the Interior, the reservation was wrongfully placed in trust, an action being contested in federal court in Washington, D.C.

This story is developing and will be updated. Cromwell and DeQuattro are scheduled to appear before a federal judge via video conference on Friday afternoon at 2pm Eastern.

Statement from Defense Attorney Timothy R. Flaherty
In a November 13, 2020, statement to Indianz.Com, attorney Timothy R. Flaherty said of his client Cedric Cromwell:

“Cedric Cromwell has served the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe honorably for more than a decade and has successfully managed the tribe’s land-into-trust and self-determination process, while building extensive infrastructure for the tribe’s benefit for future generations.”

“He’s a man of principle, a man of faith and a transformational leader. He denies these allegations and will present a vigorous defense.”

Indictment: US v. Cromwell [PDF]