The Devil's Punchbowl (7 page)

BOOK: The Devil's Punchbowl
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that trust was that Pierce’s Landing never be developed as a casino or shopping mall while the matriarch of the family remained alive. Inconveniently for the selectmen, Mrs. Pierce had lived to the ripe old age of ninety-eight, and she was still, as the saying goes, as sharp as a tack. That tack lay directly in the path of the inflated giant that was the Golden Parachute deal.

 

My first instinct was to try to persuade the company to find another property, but the company wouldn’t budge. Golden Parachute wanted the Pierce land, which was not only the last suitable river property within the city limits, but also the finest, barring the Silver Street spot taken by
Lady Luck,
the first riverboat casino in the state. Predictably, Golden Parachute began making noises about scrapping its plan to come to Natchez, and just as predictably the selectmen went into panic mode. I heard whispers about the new eminent-domain law, which allowed the government to seize private land for commercial development. I viewed this as one of the most anti-American laws ever put on the books, but my fellow officials did not share my feelings. Only Selectman Paul Labry stood with me in resisting this Stalinist move. Desperate to prevent the use of this tactic, Labry and I quietly went into action.

 

First we met with one of the Pierce heirs, who’d graduated several years ahead of me at St. Stephen’s. He got us a copy of the actual document governing the trust, which few people had seen, outside the preservationists who’d helped to write it, and the former mayor, who’d died of lung cancer shortly after leaving office. To my surprise, I discovered that Mrs. Pierce possessed the authority to unilaterally revoke the clause preventing casino development. Disturbed by the board’s increasing clamor to seize the land in question, I requested an audience with the grand old dame of Pierce’s Landing.

 

I met the distinguished lady in a conference room at Twelve Oaks Gardens, an assisted-living facility on the outskirts of town. As the granddaughter of an officer who had served under General J. E. B. Stuart at Gettysburg, Mrs. Pierce presided over an entire wing of the facility like a dowager empress. Her children had offered to take her in, but they had all settled in other states, and Mrs. Pierce preferred to remain in the city she’d lived in all her life, and to “be around people” rather than to live in her mansion with round-the-clock nurses (or “watchers,” as she called them, as in “They’re here to watch me
have my final heart attack.”) Mrs. Pierce granted me the audience because my father had treated her for more than thirty years, and because, she told me, she had enjoyed several of my novels on tape. At ninety-eight, she confessed with some embarrassment, her eyes were not what they had once been.

 

For the best part of an hour, I made the case for allowing a casino riverboat to be moored to her ancestral land. Early in our conversation, I discovered that Mrs. Pierce was neither a religious zealot nor a hidebound moralist. She confided that her father had hated gambling in all its forms, not least because his brother had lost a fine home and several hundred acres of farmland during a drunken poker game. She also mentioned that forty years earlier she’d become aware of quite a bit of “unpleasantness” going on across the river, all related to gambling. One of her maids had actually been accosted on the road by men who’d believed she was a prostitute. After realizing the basis of her objections, I pointed out that legalized casino gambling was far different from the illicit juke-joint operations she remembered. Gambling was now a legitimate industry of strictly regulated corporations that had brought prosperity to our struggling state. In making this argument, the numbers were all on my side.

 

Legalized casino gambling lifted Mississippi’s Tunica County—once the poorest in the United States—from wretched poverty to wealth in fifteen years. A rural county serviced by open sewer ditches in 1991, Tunica has doubled its per capita income while going from two thousand total jobs to over seventeen thousand. They’ve invested $40 million in school improvements, poured millions into police and fire protection, built a sports arena, doubled the size of their library, and invested over $100 million in their road system. Statewide, the verdict on gambling is beyond question. Since 1992, the casino industry has come to provide nearly 5 percent of the state’s total tax revenue.

 

Despite Mrs. Pierce’s suspicion that “vice is vice, whatever cloak it wears,” I knew I was making headway when she told me that she’d always chastised her friends who had blindly resisted change and felt they had hobbled the city’s efforts to keep pace with the rest of the country. I knew I was almost home when she said softly that she’d never imagined she would gaze down the hill that led to her
“home place” and see a neon casino sign. I promised her that if that was her final objection, she never would. The city would submit all of Golden Parachute’s signage plans to her for approval. My mouth fell open when the old belle said she wouldn’t carp about the sign if the company would devote one-half of 1 percent of its revenues from the
Magnolia Queen
to helping the city’s underprivileged children. (Mrs. Pierce actually said “colored,” but her heart was in the right place.) In the end the company agreed to one-quarter of 1 percent, but that has amounted to $162,000 this year.

 

Two days after our meeting, Mrs. Pierce revoked the restrictive clause, and the Golden Parachute casino deal went forward. This made me a hero to the board of selectmen, but I felt like a heel. What I feel tonight is immeasurably worse. Mrs. Pierce died one month after revoking that clause, and if even half of Tim’s allegations are true, it’s a mercy that she did. The town at large never learned that it was I who opened the final gate to Golden Parachute, but that does not lessen my guilt. Tonight I feel more like I lifted our hoopskirt and pulled down our petticoats.

 

Nevertheless, dogfighting, drug use, and prostitution went on here before the
Magnolia Queen
arrived, just as they do in every city in America. The thesis that Golden Parachute is defrauding the city of millions of dollars in taxes is an accusation of a different order. This kind of crime, while not as disturbing on the surface as the others, is more harmful in the end, because it impacts every man, woman, and child in the city. If this allegation is true, then food is being stolen from the mouths of the children Mrs. Pierce wanted to help.

 

Yet this is the part of Tim’s tale that I find impossible to believe. I don’t know enough about computers to judge the feasibility of distorting the casino’s gross receipts, but even if such fraud were possible, the central question remains:
Why would Golden Parachute risk it?
Especially now.

 

Forty-six days ago, Hurricane Katrina roared over the floating gold mines that were the casinos at Biloxi and Gulfport and left behind something resembling Omaha Beach on D-day. A single storm wiped out a $100-million-a-month industry. But 150 miles to the northwest, in Natchez, the
Magnolia Queen
and her sister casinos simply battened down their hatches and rode out the winds and rain. The city sustained severe damage, and some areas were without
power for more than a week, but the
Magnolia Queen
was running on her generators the day after the hurricane. And no sooner had some refugees gotten settled into the shelters at the local churches and school gymnasiums than they found time and means to get down to the river and gamble away what little money they’d brought with them (or had been given by the churches). That image brings a sick feeling to the pit of my stomach, but more than that, it tells me that the partners of Golden Parachute Gaming would have to be insane to risk their gaming license to pick up a few extra million when God is going to dump ten times that amount into their coffers over the next year.

 

Moreover, until tonight, the company has given me no reason to regret bringing them to town. They’ve paid their taxes promptly and followed through on the community investments they promised. I enjoy cordial relations with their general manager, an Englishman named Sands who works the city with the professional charm one would expect from a manager in Las Vegas, not Mississippi. The only part of Golden Parachute that’s ever rubbed me the wrong way is their chief of security, a coarse Irishman named Seamus Quinn, who looks and talks like an overdressed thug from the London underworld. But Sands vouched for Quinn’s credentials, and I decided my problem with the security man was more a matter of style than anything, like my problem with some cops. The bottom line is that I’ve watched Golden Parachute operate without incident in every market they serve. So I find myself at a loss when trying to reconcile Tim Jessup’s allegations with what I know of the company.

 

My eyes are blurring with fatigue near the end of the file, but I blink myself awake when I find a note I wrote in the margin of one document over a year ago. In red ink, on a copy of Golden Parachute’s original application for its gaming license, I see the words
Voting trust. % voting power reflect actual ownership?
Something Tim said tonight makes this note resonate within me, and suddenly my only serious suspicion about the original Golden Parachute deal returns to me.

 

By law, anyone who plans to own more than 5 percent of a casino in Mississippi must submit to a comprehensive investigation of his past. This is no simple background check; no aspect of the prospective owner’s life is off-limits, and the subject must pay for the
investigation himself. The gaming commission maintains a full staff of investigators for this purpose, and they will not hesitate to fly to the Philippines to subpoena the contents of a safe-deposit box if they deem it necessary to determine the “suitability” of an applicant. In fact, most rejections of gaming applications have been based on the “unsuitability” of investors.

 

During the Golden Parachute deal, I learned from talking to an old law school classmate that there is a way around this statute. Lawyers can establish a “voting trust,” which may own all or part of a casino. Behind such a trust lies a group of investors with a private understanding of who owns what percent of the company, but on paper 95 percent of the voting power is held by the one partner who has nothing to fear from a background investigation. The other partners are named in the application, but since on paper they own only the remaining 5 percent between them, they are not subject to similar scrutiny. A neat system. But what happens, I asked my friend, if the squeaky-clean front partner decides to actually start using his voting power to make the decisions? My friend laughed and said that because most of the “five percent partners” tend to have names that end with vowels, this rarely happens. When it does, the front partner usually winds up inside a fifty-five-gallon drum in a convenient body of water.

 

Golden Parachute Gaming is owned by a voting trust called Golden Flower LLC. Flipping to the back of the application, I see that it was signed only by the front partner—the L.A. entertainment lawyer—and not the “five percenters.” What stuck in my mind tonight was Tim’s comment about a Chinese billionaire’s son flying in from Macao to fight his dog in Mississippi. Why, I wondered, would a billionaire come so far to do something he could easily do in Macao? Was he simply seeking new competition? After all, for a man with a private jet, distance means little. But I’m almost sure I remember that two of the five percent partners in Golden Parachute were Chinese. By the time I learned this, the deal was so far along that I gave it little thought. I simply made this note in the margin and moved on, caught up in the next day’s business. No one wanted to rock the boat by then, not even, apparently, the gaming commission. But tonight, I realize, I need an answer to the question I wrote in this margin so long ago.

 

Who really owns Golden Parachute?

 

With a last swallow of diluted tea, I close the file and slip it behind my collection of Patrick O’Brian novels on the third shelf. As I walk upstairs, my thoughts and feelings about what I heard in the cemetery start to separate, like solids precipitating from a solution. On one hand, I don’t doubt that Tim witnessed the horrors he described. On the other, if someone shook me awake at 4:00 a.m. and asked whether I was sure that Jessup hadn’t started snorting coke again—or heroin or crystal meth or whatever he was doing before Julia Stanton got him straightened out—I would be hard-pressed to say I was. Most people who know us both would assume the worst about Tim. I don’t, but it wouldn’t be hard to convince myself that he’s dreamed up a conspiracy in which he can play the hero to belatedly make up for the real-life drama in which he played the villain.

 

During his first year at Ole Miss, Tim agreed to host two prospective freshmen from St. Stephen’s Prep, our alma mater, during a football weekend. Like a lot of other students, he made several high-speed trips to the county line to procure cold beer, which was not legally available in Oxford, Mississippi (and still isn’t). During his third beer run, Tim drove his Trans Am eighty-eight feet off the highway and into a pecan tree standing at the edge of a cotton field. Tim and one of the high school boys were wearing their seat belts; the third boy was not. The impact ejected him from the backseat through the front windshield and into the branches of the tree, where with any luck he died instantly. Because of the alcohol found at the scene, both sets of parents sued Jessup’s father, and Tim served a year in jail for manslaughter. Pleading the case down from vehicular homicide probably cost Dr. Jessup all the goodwill he’d built up in twenty years of practicing medicine, not to mention the cash that must have changed hands under the table. But despite the light sentence, things were never really the same for Tim after that. As his life slipped further and further off track, people blamed drugs, weakness of character, even his father, but in my gut I always knew it was the wreck that had ruined him.

 

Now, with his new wife’s help, Tim seems to have clawed his way back to a decent life. But a casino boat is probably a tough place for a guy with his past to stay clean.
BOOK: The Devil's Punchbowl
13.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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