Tribes vs. states

Oct 10, 2006 4:02 AM

Tribal sovereignty and state campaign laws went head to head in the California Supreme Court last week.

In a lawsuit filed four years ago, the state Fair Political Practices Commission accused the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of failing to report $7.5 million in campaign contributions until after the set deadline, Copley News Service reported.

The tribe contends that under federal law, as a sovereign nation, it is immune from lawsuits. Agua Caliente attorney James Martin told justices that tribes could be sued only if Congress authorizes it or a tribe consents.

The state says the tribe didn’t disclose contributions to a 1998 Indian gaming proposition and to a 2002 initiative that would have provided a Los Angeles-to-Palm Springs rail line with a terminal near the tribe’s casino.

During the debate last week, Justice Carol Corrigan said the Agua Caliente "is trying to have its cake and eat it, too" by claiming immunity as a sovereign government while contributing funds to U.S. election campaigns.

The state of California puts a cap on campaign contributions and sets a deadline for reporting them””laws which most gaming tribes comply with. Over the last ten years, tribes have contributed more than $200 million to election campaigns, making them a considerable force in politics.

The state previously filed a similar lawsuit against the Santa Rosa Tachi Band of Lemoore. After making it’s way through several courts, the lawsuit was settled in favor of the state when an appellate court ruled that the state’s need to protect the integrity of its elections outweighed the tribe’s sovereign immunity.

The debate could wind up in the US Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court has 90 days to issue its decision.

Narragansett news

The potential sale of Harrah’s Entertainment is the latest bump in a long series of hurdles endured by the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island as they attempt to open a casino in West Warwick.

Last week Harrah’s announced that two private equity firms — Texas Pacific Group and Apollo Management — have offered to purchase the company’s outstanding stock for $81 a share, the Providence Journal reported. The $15 billion potential sale had lawmakers scratching their heads.

"This just adds one more uncertainty to an already long list of questions we have about the casino," Republican Governor Carcieri was reported as saying.

Anti-gaming opponents were equally vexed by the announcement. Save Our State executive director Tim Costa noted, "It’s troublesome enough that we’re being forced to consider changing our Constitution for Harrah’s Entertainment — the world’s largest gambling company — but now we’re being asked to change our Constitution for the unknown."

A referendum to allow a casino to be "privately owned and operated by the Narragansett tribe and its chosen partner" will appear on the November ballot.

Narragansett Indian Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas said he wasn’t worried about the possible buy-out because "whoever purchased [Harrah’s] would buy all of the rights that they have."

House Finance Chairman Steven M. Costantino, D-Providence, was equally un-moved. "Should the referendum be successful, we would then begin to negotiate a contract with the Narragansetts and their partner, whether it be Harrah’s or someone else," he told the paper.

According to financial projections, the proposed casino could net the city of West Warwick up to $20 million a year, and provide the state with $144 million annually. The ballot referendum dictates that the state’s share be dedicated to property-tax relief””a benefit that most Rhode Islanders, it seems, would welcome.