Manager evokes loyalty, distain

Posted: Sunday, July 23, 2000

In the center of the state investigation into two Juneau-based charity fund-raising cooperatives is George Wright, a man who does not go quietly.

With graying chest hair curling around a gold chain and shirt buttoned-down, he looks the part of a gambling man.

Some people who deal with Wright say his heart is made of the same stuff as the gold chain he wears. Others wonder if either is real.

``Everybody knows that I'm an (expletive) and I am,'' Wright said. ``I'm not ashamed of it, but I'm a good one.''

After 17 years working first as a police officer, then in corrections, Wright said he's on a crusade to solve the problems he saw in the streets and prisons by helping kids.

``I figure if we're going to change today's problem, you've got to start with the kids,'' he said.

Wright started as a volunteer, selling a single jar of pull tabs for the Moose Lodge in 1992. Wright said a leader of the Alaska Native Brotherhood then asked him to help pull the group out of the hole created when the previous gaming manager was charged with embezzling money. The manager, Wes Harris, was convicted of taking more than $400,000 and was sentenced to five years in prison.

``We managed to pay this all off and go,'' Wright said.

By the end of the first year Wright was a paid employee. Now he is member-in-charge of a $3 million gambling empire, overseeing 16 pull-tab shops including Tab Time in the Nugget Mall, Sweet Revenge downtown and the Alaska Native Brotherhood shop on Willoughby Avenue. The shops employ nearly 100 people a year and Wright is quick to credit them for his success.

``This is not a George Wright thing. This is a team effort. There's no I's on our team,'' he said.

But it's his cell phone that rings every few minutes and Wright readily takes responsibility for everything that happens in his shops. Every deposit made from every shop is reported directly to him.

Last year he added a third gaming cooperative and he plans to expand to four gaming cooperatives, able to serve 24 nonprofit groups. Eight of the nonprofit groups in Wright's cooperatives are in Juneau: Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp 2 Inc., Alaska Native Brotherhood Fraternity, Juneau Baseball Softball Association, Tlingit and Haida Elderly Medical Club, Juneau Boxing Club, Midnight Suns Softball Association, Juneau Boxing Club, and Juneau Douglas Rebounders.

``I took all of my little charities, I promised them the moon and I built this machine that makes money,'' Wright said.

Wright said his reward is a $52,000 annual salary and the satisfaction of helping out. Besides managing the pull-tab cooperatives, Wright works on the ballfields at Melvin Park, hand-raking them before the state championship games each year. When Little League was playing in Sitka last weekend, Wright begged, bullied and cajoled friends into donating money to get the games broadcast over the radio.

``This is what it's all about, right here,'' Wright said, pointing emphatically at a photo of the Midnight Suns girls fastpitch softball team. ``Kids.''

He has three of his own, ages 11, 15 and 16, but they don't play on all the teams his charities support.

Wright deserves more credit and recognition for what he's done, said Dave Massey, of the Midnight Suns Softball team and Juneau Baseball Softball Association.

``I actually feel bad because I think he's taking years off his life taking shots from people for different things and he needs to be appreciated for what he does for the youth of the community,'' Massey said.

People who've worked for Wright describe a completely different man, one who flies into rages, yelling at employees and firing them arbitrarily, only to take it back later when he calms down.

``George wears a lot of hats and so many faces it's not even funny,'' said Leon Williams, former ANB administrative assistant.

``There was a lot of discrepancies going on,'' said Williams, who was also ANB financial secretary. ``As a financial secretary I should have been there at all meetings, but I was closed out of it.''

When he asked Wright why ANB wasn't getting its full share of the pull-tab income, ``He said it was none of my business,'' Williams said.

Other employees also had problems with Wright. Norman Vonda said he's been blacklisted from catering jobs at ANB since filing and winning a labor claim against Wright.

``George thinks he's god, so he can deny me a catering job there just because he can yell and scream at me in person,'' said Vonda, who ran the ANB kitchen under Wright until spring 1999. ``You know how defensive he gets and emotional.''

Sure, Wright gets ``hot around the collar'' sometimes, said George Kostenko with the Juneau Douglas Softball Association, but only in defense of the charities and out of frustration with city tax collectors and state regulators.

``If you find anybody saying anything negative about George, it's probably where he thinks they've done something that gets in the way of our doing things for the kids,'' Massey said.

Massey suspects the state investigation may have been prompted by a personal vendetta against Wright.

``I think they're worried he's got some direction where he's going to get rich,'' Massey said. ``If he's looking to get rich, he could have done it a long time ago.''

The only weakness Massey sees in Wright is that he lacks a business management background and sometimes makes decisions that turn out to be mistakes later. The first financial firm hired by the cooperative used an accounting method that turned out to be ill-suited for gaming, Massey said. They've since switched accountants and are in the process of switching the way outstanding bills and revenues are accounted for. That transition has also confused the regulators, Massey said.

``I have full confidence that things on all issues will be ironed out,'' Massey said.



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