Several of California's largest gaming tribes have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a little-known body to successfully speed up their land applications – a necessary step for casino expansion, Capitol Weekly has learned.
The California Fee to Trust Consortium was established under the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs Pacific Regional office in 2000 in order to expedite land claims, many of which have languished for years. The consortium arrangement allows tribes to pay into a fund that pays the salaries of the BIA employees who evaluate these claims.
Documents about the little-known governmental organization came to light following a series of Freedom of Information Act requests by a pair of community groups fighting a casino.
The documents, disclosed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, show that about 70 California tribes have paid in $5.5 million to the consortium over its life. In return, the consortium has placed 11,439 acres into trust. The tribes that pay into the fund have paid at least $3,000 per year for at least three years.
However, 15 tribes have paid 80 percent of the cost of the program – and been granted 51 percent of the land into trust. Eight of the 15 tribes that gave the most also rank in the top 15 in terms of land received into trust. The top five contributing tribes alone – the Santa Rosa Rancheria, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and Morongo Band of Mission Indians – have paid more than half the cost of the program and received one-fifth of the land.
This group of 15 reads largely like a who's who of gaming in California. It includes three of the so-called "Big 4" tribes whose revised gaming compacts were approved by voters on Feb. 5 – Morongo, Sycuan and the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians – as well as the Pala Band of Mission Indians, one of the main funders of their campaign opposition. Overall, 13 of the top 15 contributing tribes currently operate casinos, while the other two have compacts but have yet to build gaming facilities.
Jerry Paresa, executive director of governmental affairs with the San Manuel tribe, said the tribe was approached in 1999 or 2000 about joining the consortium.
"We had had some fee-to-trust applications that were languishing with no movement at all for five, six, seven years," Paresa said. "With the budget cutbacks, there was nobody to work on these applications."
By the end of 2001, the San Manuel tribe had received 121 acres into trust. Paresa said the tribe has two other contiguous land-into-trust applications in process with the consortium, with a total acreage similar to what it has already received. However, he added that part of the reason the tribe continues to pay in $40,000 a year into the consortium is to help out smaller, poorer tribes whose land applications have also been on hold.
"For us, this is about services to all the tribes in California, not just San Manuel," Paresa said. "Fortunately, we're in a position where we can assist."
Others have a less rosy view of the consortium. Kathryn Bowen, a spokeswoman for the anti-casino group Preservation of Los Olivos, said it illustrates one of the major problems with the land-into-trust process: that local communities and governments are left out of the process.
"The reason fee to trust is a concern to local communities is land is getting taken out of the regulatory control of local governments," Bowen said. "When they take land out into trust, it comes out of local zoning and taxation."
POLO and another group, Preservation of Santa Ynez, sued the Department of the Interior in an effort to oppose a land-into-trust application by the Santa Ynez Chumash tribe, which operates the Chumash Resort and Casino in the area. Mark Rochefort, an attorney representing POLO and POSY with the Los Angeles firm Weston Benshoof, said they filed the FOIA request in an effort to prove legal standing to bring their lawsuit. It took nearly a year – from February 2007 to this past Jan. 16 – for the Department of the Interior to act on their request.
"The consortium and the financial aspects provide the background in another context for why we think this whole fee-to-trust procedure does not adequately take into account the community," Rochefort said. "You look at a few of the tribes, they are contributing huge amounts of money to support the fee to trust applications."
In fact, the tribe they are fighting, the Santa Ynez Chumash, as the third-largest contributor to the consortium, having given a total of $450,000. However, both payments by the top tribes and the overall funding of the consortium have been going down over the years, and the organization works its way through a backlog of land claims. The consortium is funded in three-year cycles. Between 2000 and 2002, the top 15 tribes paid in $1.8 million of the $2.2 million total (83 percent). From 2003 to 2006, they put in just under $1.5 million of $1.9 million total, or 76 percent. In the current cycle, they have paid or pledged just under $1.1 million of a total $1.4 million budget, or 79 percent.
Some of these tribes, notably the Santa Ynez Chumash and San Manuel, have continued to pay in significant amounts long after their original stalled land applications were resolved. Other tribes paid large amounts but stopped after their claims were resolved. The Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians paid in $300,000 between 2000 and 2003, but nothing since then; they received 84 acres into trust in 2001. Pechanga paid in $115,000 between 2001 and 2005, but nothing since; they got 934 acres into trust in 2003.
On the other end of the spectrum, the records show that 44 tribes have paid in for the current three-year funding cycle, running from 2006 through 2008. Thirty-three of them are paying the minimum $3,000 per year.
An earlier FOIA request uncovered an Office of the Inspector General report that raised several questions about the consortium. For instance, it raised questions as the whether the Department of Interior's legal department had ever signed off on the arrangement. It also quoted unnamed consortium staff who said "the tribes that donate higher amounts of money to the program ‘ultimately receive more attention.'"
Disenrollment activist John Gomez said he has seen the consortium process from both the inside and the outside. He said he was a point person in the Pechanga tribal legal office dealing with the consortium from 2001 through 2003. He helped oversee the tribe's efforts to get a 700-acre parcel known as the Great Oak Ranch into trust. In March 2004, Gomez was kicked out of the tribe for allegedly not having a legitimate hereditary claim to membership; he went on to become one of Pechanga's most vocal critics.
"We argued that it was a non-gaming application that we were taking into trust to protect cultural resources that are on the property, and that we had no intent to change the property," Gomez said. "Now it's been used as a parking lot for the casino, and they built a golf course on it."
Multiple calls to the BIA and several of the tribes listed in the report were unanswered as of press time.
Top 10 contributors to Fee to Trust Consortium, 2000-2008
Santa Rosa Rancheria $900,000
Santa Ynez Chumash $450,000
San Manuel $420,000
Barona (tie) $300,000
Rumsey Band (tie) $300,000
Table Mountain $225,000
Jackson Rancheria $135,000
Shingle Springs $84,000
Elk Valley $60,000
Top 15 recipients of Land into trust via Consortium, 2000-2006 (fractions rounded off)
Jackson Rancheria 1073
Mesa Grande 883
Elk Valley 212
San Manuel 121