He served as legislative counsel for the Washington state House of Representatives. He was special counsel to Gov. Mike Lowry. He negotiated interviews with Barbara Walters and Larry King for Mary Kay Letourneau, the former Seattle teacher convicted of the statutory rape of a 13-year old boy.
“He’s the most powerful man in Spokane that nobody knows,” said Pam Scott, communications manager for the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.
He is Kent Caputo, chief operating officer for the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority. For most of his career, Caputo has worked behind the scenes, whether drafting legislation in Olympia or building a public policy law practice in Seattle. He seems a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight, but as the Northern Quest Resort and Casino continues its expansion, the spotlight is shining brighter on the man implementing its growth.
So how did a 47-year-old attorney from a high-powered firm end up in Spokane overseeing the business operations of a small American Indian tribe? The answer might be found in the shipyards of Bremerton.
Caputo grew up in the Navy town, where his father worked in the shipyards. “They all got asbestosis,” he said. “I spent most of my years growing up, watching them all die. I got an attitude about it.”
His father’s death propelled him into law school. “I watched a hearty ex-boxer, son of Italian immigrants, football coach, have to age and suffer through asbestosis, and have half a lung removed,” Caputo said. “That’s part of what got me into politics – the little guys being taken advantage of by big guys trying to make a buck.” He grinned and added, “Clearly, I’ve got a bent for the underdog.”
With a scant 400 members, the Kalispel Tribe seems to fit his definition of underdog. “This is an organization that just a few years ago had a flood plain and a small buffalo herd. And now they’re trying to run this giant business and grow into it,” he said.
When the latest phase of the resort’s expansion is complete, the casino and tribe combined will have 2,000 employees, he estimates.
“But what they do is everything from restoring fish habitat to wellness services, child care services, to all the usual stuff you’d expect in a resort. There’s a lot that gets done up at the tribe behind the scenes,” he said.
Caputo’s interest in the Kalispels stems from his time in Olympia.
His journey from law school to legislative staffer began with a phone call. After receiving an advanced degree in litigation from Emory University in Atlanta, he fielded job offers from firms in Seattle and Atlanta. But a call from the chief clerk of the Washington state House of Representatives altered his career. He ended up working in Olympia for six years.
Sen. Margarita Prentice, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, got to know Caputo well and stayed in touch with him when he moved into the private sector. “I won’t claim we haven’t had differences of opinion,” she said. However, “I respect his opinion and his really fine mind.”
That keen intelligence is what Lowry came to depend on during his time in the governor’s office. “He was one of the three or four key people I turned to. I had tremendous confidence in where he was coming from,” Lowry said.
One of the first challenges he faced as governor was the execution of Charles Rodman Campbell, convicted of three murders. It fell to Caputo to ensure the governor had every fact before deciding between clemency and execution.
He spent countless hours researching the case, poring over court records and crime scene photos. “I’m just glad I didn’t have children when I handled this case,” he said. Fifteen years later, his eyes welled with emotion and his voice broke. “Twenty-four hours before his execution, the governor and I went to the prison, sat across the glass and interviewed him,” Caputo said. “I’ll be honest with you, now that I look back, I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, but it changed my life.”
His time in the governor’s office ended in January 1997, when “they rode us out of town on a rail,” he said with a wry grin.
Caputo began his career in the private sector as an attorney with Patton Boggs, a Washington, D.C., law and lobby firm trying to establish a Seattle office.
From there he moved to Miller Nash, where he built a public policy team. While there, Caputo got a call from Letourneau’s brother, whom he’d worked with at Patton Boggs. Letourneau had been caught with Vili Fualaau in violation of the conditions of her suspended sentence. “I put together a team to deal with her arrest after she was found with Vili,” Caputo said. He also compiled a family law team to handle custody and visitation issues.
Suddenly he was thrust into the national spotlight. “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life,” he recalled. “It was nuts.” He said people dug through his garbage cans in Seattle, a tabloid sent a beautiful woman with a briefcase full of money to his hotel in New York, and helicopters followed him when he drove. He calls that case an aberration because he had other areas of interest.
“One of my specialties became tribal law and, as a subset of that, tribal gaming. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 came into being, and there really weren’t a bunch of specialists to deal with it,” he said. “While I was still on the government side I started to become something of a specialist, and when I left government the tribes became clients.”
The Kalispel Tribe was one of them. His expertise prompted tribal leadership to offer him the job of chief operating officer. “Kent’s history with the tribe and understanding of our vision made him the perfect candidate for the job,” said Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority communications manager April Pierre.
To the surprise of friends and associates in Seattle, he accepted the position in January 2007, left his lucrative law practice and moved his wife and two children to Spokane. For Caputo, the job had the irresistible appeal of rooting for the underdog.
Throughout his association with the tribe, Caputo has witnessed ignorance and misconception relating to American Indians, and particularly the Kalispels. He tells the story of the federal government sending a team of experts to evaluate the water on the reservation. They told the chairman it was within “reasonable limits.” Caputo said, “The chairman (Glen Nenema) went to the sink and filled a glass of orange-colored water and said, ‘You drink it.’ ” They declined.
Caputo leaned forward in his chair. “When you go out to the Northern Quest Resort and Casino and you look at their great big Q logo up on the wall – it’s orange.” He grinned. “We call it Kalispel orange. It’s a subtle symbol of something very fundamental and basic that these people have had to deal with.”
After joining the Kalispels, Caputo’s first order of business involved raising the legal gambling age at the casino from 18 to 21. “I liked that decision,” he said. “I think it’s a good policy. It’s something I felt very strongly about.”
Caputo, who calls himself an “Italian tribal member,” said the work is “not about profit, it’s about profit as a part of a bigger picture. This is a government. They make money, they build their fire station, they build their wellness center, and they put in the first fresh-water line they’ve ever had on the reservation.”
They also give back, providing jobs and spending $4.5 million on average each month, with 80 percent of that on local vendors.
As part of the plan to reach out to the community, Caputo helped broker a partnership between KHQ Inc. and Northern Quest. “He came to me with an idea,” said Patricia McRae, president and general manager of KHQ. “He said, ‘We’re thinking of building a sports bar and grill. Do you think you’d like to put a studio here? Would it work?’ ”
It did. The new studio and a 24-hour broadcast called SWX (for “sports and weather”) debuted in January. The station broadcasts area high school sports and college football games, among other programming. KHQ’s sports division moved to the resort-based studio, McRae said. (KHQ, like The Spokesman-Review, is owned by the Cowles Co.)
McRae said her respect for Caputo grew over the past two years. “I trust him like family.”
Other business leaders express high regard for Caputo’s integrity and vision. “Kent is very business savvy and extremely intelligent,” said Harry Sladich, president of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But he has a real affection for the Kalispels. He’s dedicated to the success of the organization.”
Caputo believes that success involves connecting the tribe with the larger community. As such, he serves on the executive committee of Greater Spokane Inc.
“The Kalispel Tribe has been here forever; they’ve been a part of this community. Now they’re becoming a more involved, visible part,” he said. “The reason they’re doing it is because at a fundamental level they realize that their community can’t be healthy and can’t be whole if it’s not part of a broader, vigorous community.”