Home News Magic Palace under fire

Magic Palace under fire

Nanor Froundjian The Eastern Door

A key person license for a man alleged to have used Magic Palace to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel has been revoked by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (KGC), but signs point to the facility continuing to operate unimpeded by local authorities.

The cancellation of Albanian man Luftar Hysa’s key person license, which individuals must hold to perform managerial or operational functions at local gaming businesses, was decided one day after a La Presse investigation was published alleging links to organized crime and outlining a financial relationship with Magic Palace and its restaurant Mirela’s.

Magic Palace and Mirela’s have vowed to cut all ties with Hysa effective immediately. However, the company’s operations are so far unsanctioned as many questions remain unanswered.

“It makes me very angry because the shady activity that goes on in these establishments is well-known in the community, and it takes an outside entity to shine a light on it before anything is done,” said community member Jeremiah Johnson.

He does not believe the cancellation of the key person license goes far enough, echoing sentiments expressed by numerous Kahnawa’kehró:non. 

“In my opinion, they should all be closed down until a third-party investigation is completed into the working and ownership of these establishments,” he said.

Last year, Magic Palace contributed $4 million to MCK’s coffers through the electronic gaming device (EGD) pilot project as one of two community businesses licensed to participate, according to MCK chief Ryan Montour. Although the pilot project ended early this year, electronic gaming persists in a regulatory limbo as MCK and KGC glacially determine the fate of video lottery machines in a community that has voted down casinos in three referendums.

“The community voted against a casino for this very reason, because we didn’t want gangsters and organized crime infiltrating our community and gaming operations. And that’s exactly what happened right under MCK and KGC’s noses,” said Johnson.

EGDs raised nearly $15 million for the MCK in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Despite the dollars funnelled to the MCK, Ryan Montour, who leads two relevant portfolios – public safety and regulatory boards, commissions, and labour – said money is not a consideration when it comes to security.

“I would say this to community members – there is no price that I put on the safety of our community members. There’s no amount of money that supersedes the safety of our community members,” said Montour, who added that the threat to community members has been assessed as low at this time.

“If the threat level at any time changes, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake will act swiftly and with military precision to take measures to effectively eliminate that threat,” he said.

He said he understands that the report made many in the community fearful. “Fear is a highly emotional state. One of the reactions is always anger,” he said.

“Fear, the way we look at it and the way I look at it, is to face it head on, so we’re dealing with it,” he said. “We ain’t running away from it. We’re dealing with it head on.”

On Tuesday, one week after a bombshell La Presse report outlined the allegations, which have not been tested in court, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) met with representatives of Magic Palace and Mirela’s. Stanley Myiow, an owner of the operation whose name is linked to alleged financial transactions in the report, did not attend.

“Magic Palace has consistently strived to uphold the integrity and compliance within the gaming industry,” said a press release issued this week by Magic Palace and Mirela’s.

“Magic Palace wishes to emphasize their ongoing dedication to compliance with all relevant regulations within the jurisdiction. Moving forward, Magic Palace remains committed to maintaining a working relationship with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, and believes in the importance of building trust and transparency within the industry and community.”

The chief executive officer of Magic Palace and Mirela’s, Mark Jocks, declined to answer questions from The Eastern Door, citing an active investigation into Hysa. “I wouldn’t be able to comment much beyond what is in the Magic Palace/Mirela’s press release at this point in time,” he said.

The MCK signalled its approval following the meeting.

“The MCK is pleased that the owners of Magic Palace have taken swift actions on this concerning matter in the interest of public safety, accountability, and transparency,” reads a statement the MCK issued the same day.

Yet the organization’s entanglement with Hysa and the financial irregularities alleged in the report go back at least five years, leading some community members to be skeptical about the business’s promise of transparency.

“Magic Palace only took action because they were found out,” said Johnson.

Montour said the diverse professional backgrounds of Council chiefs equip the table – which includes legal and law enforcement expertise – to respond effectively. “I do say to community members, we are on top of this, and we will continue to be on top of this situation,” he said.

He pointed out that no charges have been laid in Albania, Mexico, or Canada relating to this situation. He also noted that the involvement of Magic Palace alleged in the La Presse investigation primarily pertains to Mirela’s restaurant. “We’re happy to hear that they did cut all ties, including the restaurant,” Montour said.

He declined to comment on speculation when asked whether local authorities would cooperate with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) investigation into the matter, saying instead that such a request would be navigated by the Kahnawake Peacekeepers given its jurisdictional authority over law enforcement on the territory. 

However, he said the MCK has not been approached by any other governmental jurisdictions to date.

The Peacekeepers said last week that they would “assist in any investigation in the interest of public safety for the community.”

Montour signalled his faith in local authorities to protect Kahnawake’s interests when it comes to gaming.

“(Kahnawake) has always been a world leader in both online and land-based gaming in North America and around the world,” said Montour. “There’s always been attacks, us being called an illegal jurisdiction and a grey area according to the colonizers and the oppressive governments that will always say we are an illegal entity.” He emphasized that Kahnawake’s gaming regime has always been proactive, with a track record of sanctioning non-compliance.

“The owners will have to answer to the Kahnawake Gaming Commission,” said Montour.

While the key person license for Hysa was unanimously revoked by the KGC at a duly convened meeting on October 4, Montour suggested it was coincidental that this came a day after the news broke, with a third-party investigative report the KGC had commissioned arriving around the same time, perhaps even the same day, according to Montour.

A previous report had been delivered in May 2023 to the KGC that is said to have prompted additional due diligence by the organization, according to the MCK.

“The Commission’s decision followed a lengthy and thorough investigation conducted by the Commission’s third-party agents,” said an advisory notice from the KGC.

“The Commission is currently reviewing additional information that has recently been brought forward concerning Mr. Hysa’s previous role in the operations of Magic Palace and, in collaboration with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and the Kahnawake Peacekeepers, will take such additional measures as are necessary to ensure the integrity of Kahnawake’s gaming industry.”

The KGC declined to provide answers to questions posed by The Eastern Door, saying a “more fulsome response” would only be available early next week.

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

This article was originally published in print on Friday, October 13, in issue 32.41 of The Eastern Door.

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Marcus is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.