SC-based GOP mega-donor with shady past and ties to Burr, Tillis is behind controversial Catawba casino

By: - October 23, 2020 5:30 am
South Carolina businessman Wallace Cheves is working behind the scenes to remove obstacles for the proposed Catawba Indian casino.

Wallace Cheves, whose previous legal troubles include millions in civil fines, used this money to clear legal obstacles for the project

When the Catawba Indian Nation began a seven-year battle to open a new casino resort in Cleveland County, it faced long odds. The South Carolina tribe needed to change federal law and longstanding Indian gaming policy to move across the border, to a state friendlier to gaming.

But they had a secret weapon: a partnership with a well-connected Republican mega-donor.

Wallace Cheves, the South Carolina businessman developing the casino through his company Skyboat Gaming, brought serious political influence to the fight. In the last two years Cheves has given $160,000 to the Republican National Committee and hundreds of thousands more to campaigns and political action committees that supported politicians working to remove obstacles for the casino.

Cheves also brings to the project a checkered history in gaming that includes video poker, electronic bingo, sweepstakes games and riverboat gambling. It also includes legal troubles — both criminal and civil — in several states.

Two decades ago Cheves was indicted in federal court on charges of illegal gambling in Ohio — a case that was later dropped.

In 2013 another of Cheves’s companies, Segway Gaming Systems of Alabama, was part of an action that included law enforcement officers seizing 691 illegal gambling devices and nearly $300,000 in cash.

Cheves’s various enterprises have also been ordered to pay millions in civil judgments, including $5 million levied against his company First Class Games in 2007 and a $1.3 million against Adams Mills Associates real estate company in 2013.

Cheves could not be reached for this story and calls and emails to Catawba tribal leaders were not returned.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, did speak with Policy Watch about the proposed casino and Cheves’s role in it.

As I’ve said to congress, a person with this illegal gaming history could not get work as a bingo caller at any tribal gaming facility in America,” Sneed said.

The Cherokee, who already operate two successful casinos in North Carolina, have filed a federal lawsuit over the Catawba project. They say it encroaches on ancestral Cherokee land. The way in which the project has been fast-tracked — including Cheves’s political influence — sets a dangerous precedent for all of Indian gaming in the U.S., the Cherokee argue.

That’s an argument many Republican lawmakers in North Carolina — including some who now back the project — made for years. But Cheves’s business success, built on his early work pioneering electronic gaming, has allowed him to become a major Republican political donor with influence in North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington, D.C.

A Policy Watch analysis of Cheves’s political donations reveals that they track very closely with events that led to the Catawba project’s success.

Cheves has long been a supporter of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). When Graham ran for president in 2015, he tapped Cheves as a co-chair of his South Carolina finance committee. Cheves gave $5,400 to Graham’s short-lived presidential bid and $8,500 toward his Senate re-election campaign in 2017 and 2020.

But as the Catawba’s casino quest extended from South Carolina to North Carolina, so did Cheves’s political donations. In 2015 and 2016 he gave a total of $16,400 to committees supporting the election of North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and $15,500 to committees supporting the election of Sen. Thom Tillis, both Republicans.

After Sen. Tillis co-sponsored a key piece of legislation, Cheves gave $55,900 to the Tillis and Colleagues Victory Committee.

Last year, along with Graham, the two North Carolina senators co-sponsored the key piece of legislation that could lift the restrictions on the Catawba gaming outside of South Carolina. After Tillis co-sponsored that bill, Cheves gave $55,900 to the Tillis and Colleagues Victory Committee.

Tillis’s sudden support of the casino surprised many political observers in Raleigh. He opposed the project during his time as speaker of the North Carolina House, when he joined more than 100 House lawmakers in signing a letter arguing against it to the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Democratic and Republican members of the state Senate also overwhelmingly opposed the project, including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Eden).

Even with congressional support from senators in North and South Carolina, the casino project still faced a major roadblock — the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 2018 the department rejected the tribe’s request to secure land for its casino in North Carolina.

In 2019 Cheves — who supported Graham and then Jeb Bush in the GOP presidential primaries rather than Donald Trump — donated $40,600 to the Trump Victory PAC. He also donated $5,600 to Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.

In January of this year, he gave his largest yet donation in support of the president — $125,000 to the Trump Victory PAC.

Two months later, the Department of the Interior reversed its decision, allowing the Catawba to acquire the land in Cleveland County.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

“I don’t know that there has ever been a more clearly trackable pay-to-play,” Sneed said. “This donation went here, this person flipped. This donation went here and then this person flipped. It’s pretty blatant at this point. There’s money being doled out all over the place. It’s very troubling to watch.”

The Cherokee also make plenty of campaign donations — and some of them have raised questions.

Last year Bob Hall, a campaign finance watchdog and former executive director of non-profit Democracy NC, sent a letter to the State Board of Elections asking for an investigation into the tribe’s political donations in the state. Because the tribe is a sovereign nation rather than a PAC, it is more difficult to track its political donations. But Hall found 400 donations totaling $1.3 million between 2013 and 2018. If the tribe were a PAC, that level of donation would make it one of the state’s largest.

Though Hall’s investigation did turn up some donations that hadn’t been properly reported by the campaigns or the tribe, the state board has not publicly announced any investigation.

Sneed doesn’t deny his tribe has made political donations, but says they’ve been transparent about it. They have not relied on politically connected developers like Cheves to make donations that would benefit their projects, he said.

The lack of transparency about the project has been a problem from the beginning, Sneed said, from unanswered questions about unnamed investors in the project to the involvement of Cheves rather than long-established multinational companies usually attracted to such deals.

The Cherokee’s two casinos in Cherokee and Murphy are owned entirely by the tribe and operated by Caesar’s Entertainment.

“If this is such an above-the-board deal, then why aren’t there developers — real developers like MGM, Penn National Gaming, Caesar’s — why aren’t they lining up to do this deal with the Catawba?” Sneed said.

A casino within 35 minutes of the Charlotte/Mecklenburg market should be lucrative enough to draw long-established and less controversial developers, Sneed said.

Cheves has also established close ties with state and local elected leaders from Cleveland County and Kings Mountain.

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) has worked as an attorney for Cheves’s Skyboat Gaming and recused himself from discussions of the project in the General Assembly.

Tillis’s successor as House Speaker, Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) has worked as an attorney for Cheves’s Skyboat Gaming; he has recused himself from discussions of the project in the General Assembly. That’s frustrating for locals who oppose the project and say their state representative is compromised by business dealings with Cheves’s company.

“We really don’t feel like our voices are being heard,” said Dina Jenkins Spencer, a Cleveland County resident active in the movement to oppose the casino. “Between all the people getting political money and Tim Moore actually working for the developer, you really can’t feel like the people who are supposed to be representing you are going to do that.”

Kings Mountain Mayor Scott Neisler, whose family’s millions in land holdings near the casino site were the subject of a previous Policy Watch investigation, said he has “a really good working relationship” with Cheves.

“I have not seen anything other than him trying to lift a boat for everybody, supporting everybody,” Neisler said.

Neisler said he isn’t troubled by Cheves’s past charges of illegal gaming or allegations of his having bought political influence to advance the casino project.

“I have no idea if the allegations are true or false,” Neisler said. “I have not even looked into it. I go by how people are going to treat me, whether they’re above board and what they’re saying is correct.”

“I have no reason to believe anything Wallace Cheves tells me as not being truthful, factual and honorable,” Neisler said. “I feel real good about it.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.