Lobbyists probed in tribal scandal

Aug 23, 2005 6:07 AM

The Tigua Tribe of Texas had no idea what they were getting into when they hired lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon to head an effort to reopen their casino, Speaking Rock, after state officials shut it down in 2002. At that time, the tribe was earning about $60 million annually with a 24-hour operation that was attracting 100,000 players per month.

But a federal court agreed with then-Gov. George W. Bush and then-Attorney General John Cornyn that the casino violated Texas’ limited gambling laws, and the casino was shut down. In an effort to save its major source of revenue, tribal officials turned to Abramoff and Scanlon.

Now, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee has launched an investigation into whether Abramoff and Scanlon schemed to swindle six Indian tribes with casinos, including the Tiguas. The committee has released documents showing Abramoff was working on behalf of tribes in neighboring states who wanted to curb competition. In hundreds of e-mails and other documents, Abramoff refers to tribal officials as monkeys, morons and cave dwellers. He urged social conservatives, including fundamentalist ministers, to complain about the Texas casino. After it was shut down, he asked the tribe to hire him as its lobbyist (to the tune of $4.2 million) to get it reopened. The effort failed and more than 900 jobs have been lost at the Tigua casino.

Tribes look

The quest for non-reservation casino building in California continues to be greeted with both support and opposition.

A bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) to block the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians from opening a casino in the Bay Area without local and federal approval is likely to pass the Senate, according to The Los Angeles City Beat. The tribe acquired 10 acres in San Pablo through an act of Congress that exempted the tribe from going through the review process for off-reservation gaming. Feinstein says California voters did not envision non-reservation casinos when they approved gaming in 2000.

Nevertheless, two proposals were approved last week for casinos on non-reservation lands. Despite opposition from the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, the Madera County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to support the Class III gaming facility proposed by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians. And the city council in Marysville, California, voted 4-1 to approve a $90 million hotel-casino agreement with the Enterprise Rancheria.

Meanwhile, the Glenn County Board of Supervisors delayed a decision on a proposed casino agreement with the Grindstone Rancheria of Wintun-Wailaki Indians. The tribe wants to build a medium-sized casino on 280 acres of non-reservation land. The tribe is seeking local support before it negotiates a Class III gaming compact with the state and asks the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take land into trust, according to The Chico Enterprise Record.

Tax revenue
in jeopardy

A Minnesota casino’s tax-exempt status "could be devastating." Minnesota’s White Earth Band’s Shooting Star Casino will soon become part of Indian trust land. This is good news for the tribe, which means the casino will be exempt from property taxes, but bad news for Mahnomen County. As the largest taxpayer in the county, the casino has been coughing up $900,000 to $1 million a year in property taxes to Mahnomen County. Losing the revenue "could be devastating," said County Board Chairman John Peterick, according to The Minneapolis Star Tribune.

County Attorney Julie Bruggeman said a loss of revenue "could hurt the tribe also ... because tax money goes to services we give to all members of the county, including tribal members."

But tribal officials plan to pay the county some money in lieu of taxes, though it will be nowhere near the $1 million a year figure. Peterick said he thinks tribal officials are "not about to leave us high and dry."

Except for Shooting Star, Minnesota casinos sit on land that is tax-exempt because it is held in trust for the tribe. Shooting Star, which opened in 1992, was exempt from trust status because it was mortgaged. Now that the mortgage has been fulfilled, a trust application has been filed with the federal government and is expected to go into effect shortly.