fter winning the Maine tribes’ land claims case, Tom Tureen became a celebrity in Indian country. His 1975 victory in Passamaquoddy v. Morton – which extended the possibility of federal recognition to tribes up and down the Eastern Seaboard – made him the go-to attorney for tribes seeking to follow the Passamaquoddy’s playbook. Time magazine called it the “most celebrated Indian victory since Little Big Horn.”
By 1980, Tureen had already been associated with lawsuits involving more than a dozen tribes in six Eastern states, including a tiny group of Indians in rural southeastern Connecticut calling themselves the Mashantucket Pequots. Although the last inhabitant of their 214-acre reservation had died years before, the Pequots would, with Tureen’s help, become among the wealthiest tribes in North America.
Through 1981 and 1982, Tureen and his law partner, Barry Margolin, helped the Pequots negotiate a land claims settlement of their own, by which the 50-member tribe received $900,000 to buy another 800 acres. As in Maine, the Pequots agreed to be subject to state civil and criminal law but – critically, it would turn out – not regulatory authority.
Shortly thereafter, Tureen and Margolin successfully challenged Connecticut’s attempt to stop the Pequots from opening a high-stakes bingo hall. With Tureen’s legal help and an investment by Malaysian billionaire Lim Kok Thay, the hall would become Foxwoods, a casino that today has 6,300 slot machines, 10,000 employees, and 6.7 million square feet of hotel, recreation and gambling space – an area larger than the Pentagon. By the 1990s the members of the Pequot tribe – even unemployed teenagers – were collecting $100,000 a year in per capita disbursements.
In 1983 – when the Pequots’ bingo hall was still in the planning stages – Tureen shifted his focus from helping tribes win recognition and land claims under the Indian Non-Intercourse Act to helping tribes make investments in their future. While keeping his law partnership with Margolin, Tureen founded a new entity, Tribal Assets Management, with a former Princeton classmate, Daniel Zilkha.
Between the two firms, Tureen had become the Maine tribes’ near-exclusive business representative. The law firm brokered tens of millions of dollars of land and real estate purchases, while Portland-based Tribal Assets Management helped identify, negotiate and manage purchases of companies and other assets.
Tureen’s tenure would prove polarizing. Some Passamaquoddy – including veteran Indian Township Gov. John Stevens – say he advised the tribe well in difficult circumstances. Others, however, question his business dealings with the tribe.
“He just befriended tribal leaders as they came into office, and he always made sure that he had a quorum of people who would approve of his direction, so he could shape our economics,” says former Indian Township Chief Allen Sockabasin, a longtime critic of Tureen. “He was friendly to me, so I thought he was my friend, but he really bamboozled us.”
Brian Altvater, who was lieutenant governor at Pleasant Point in the early 1990s, agrees. “There was almost like a codependency between Tom Tureen and the Passamaquoddy tribe,” he says. “He felt all he had to do was to sell whatever he needed to the tribal elders, wine and dine them, and he had it made.”
He also had the trust and gratitude of many in the tribe, having won them federal recognition and the land settlement, says tribal historian and former legislative representative Donald Soctomah. “I think he should have maybe advised us, but shouldn’t have been our financial agent,” he says. “That seemed to me to be a conflict.”
Conflict or not, Tureen’s firms brokered a series of investment deals that drew national media attention. He helped broker the purchase of two Rockland radio stations, a little-known map company called DeLorme and a blueberry farm near Columbia Falls. He helped them use their municipal powers to float a bond, raising the capital to buy Thomaston-based Dragon Cement, one of the only cement companies in New England.
On the whole, the Passamaquoddy’s investments paid off.
Their $2.2 million investment in the 3,000-acre blueberry farm reportedly paid for itself in 18 months and today generates around $2 million annually for the tribe.
The tribe purchased Dragon Cement for $2 million and assumed $23 million in loans, but five years later they sold it for $80 million, a sum paid out over two decades, which helped balance budgets. The deal was considered so successful it became a Harvard Business School case study.
They made less money on DeLorme, which they purchased for $700,000 and sold for $2 million. Within a few years the company was worth many times that. A similar-sized investment in a Portland parking garage failed when the venture went bankrupt.
Then there was the so-called scrubber affair. When the tribe sold Dragon, they kept ownership of a patent for a new air scrubber technology developed by one of the company’s employees. Proponents said the scrubber could remove 95 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions at cement plants, and, in the process, produced a valuable component of fertilizer.
“Tureen told me that within the next two years the tribe was going to realize $300 million in profits from the scrubber,” Altvater recalls.
The tribe invested $2 million in its development, and the federal government another $11 million. The venture never bore fruit. There was disagreement at the time as to whether Tureen was at fault for being overly optimistic about the state of the technology.
Overall, Tureen estimated the tribe had netted more than $80 million from the investments recommended by his firm by 2003, a result he described at the time as “spectacular.” The lieutentant governor in that year – Joseph Socobasin, who is currently governor – concurred: “Basically the sentiment is that Tom did very well for us.”
By contrast, the Penobscots did poorly, breaking even by Tureen’s account. A $5 million purchase of mobile home manufacturer Schiavi Homes ended in bankruptcy and a million-dollar loss. Penobscot Gov. Francis Mitchell fired Tureen in 1990, only to be ousted himself in his re-election bid.
“I stayed on after the land claim agreement to help them fulfill it and make something of it,” Tureen says, expressing disappointment that some question his efficacy. “The process was remarkable, and I’m very proud of all those things that we did.”
In both tribes’ transactions, Tureen made out well. According to press accounts, his firm earned $400,000 on the Schiavi Homes deal and millions on Dragon. By his account, Tribal Assets Management received a retainer of $120,000, plus 5 percent of profits, but sources within the tribe say that when his law firm’s cuts are taken into account, the fees were higher, with 11 percent a widely cited figure. (Tureen has noted that money managers typically charge 20 percent.)
“I told him, ‘You have the best of all worlds,’” Altvater recalls telling Tureen after the parking garage bankruptcy. “We take all the risks, and if something happens we absorb it, but you still get paid.”
Tureen’s various ventures across the country made him a wealthy man. In 1998, Tureen and his wife purchased what was then Maine’s most expensive home. Stonecroft, listed at $5.75 million, was designed by John Calvin Stevens and included 31 acres, a half-mile of ocean frontage, a pool, and a guest house and carriage house in Falmouth Foreside.
But in the preceding years, the tribe’s own house was getting out of order.
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: