Dispute between tribes and developers plays in gambling debate

Henry Duro
Chair of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians (California)

Leslie Lohse
Treasurer Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians of California

Wayne Mitchum
Chair of the Colusa Indian Community (California)

From Washington, D.C., to Sacramento, there is a growing concern that the
process of recognizing Indian tribal lands is being exploited. Recent
scandals in Washington have highlighted the role that developers, lobbyists
and others have played in trying to take advantage of the current system. In
particular, the issue of off-reservation gaming–where a casino developer
seeks to undermine the principle of tribal sovereignty by moving a tribe
from its historic, ancestral lands to another location to use the tribe’s
status to develop a casino where the developer would otherwise be
restricted–has become the focal point for reform efforts at both the federal
and state level.

Our tribes support efforts to stand for the principle of sovereignty and
against off-reservation casino gaming. To be sure, we strongly support
tribes using their historically recognized lands as they see fit, including
developing casinos. However, we are opposed to developers moving tribes from
their lands to commercially strategic locations for the sole purpose of
developing casinos where they would otherwise not be allowed.

In the U.S. Senate, Senator John McCain is leading the reform effort to
address those developers and casino companies that are seeking to exploit a
tribe’s status and establish a gaming facility on lands that do not
represent a particular tribe’s historic lands. Senator McCain is joined by
Congressman Richard Pombo, who has introduced reform legislation in the
House. Here in California, state Senator Dean Florez is leading a similar
reform effort. In both Washington and Sacramento, the reformers have
uncovered problems that need to be addressed when it comes to developers
exploiting the system for their own benefit.

While we support the concept for reform being articulated by leaders at the
federal level like Senator McCain and at the state level by state Senator
Florez, we are concerned about some efforts, many well intended, to
“grandfather in” tribes that are attempting to engage in off-reservation
casino gaming while this legislation is being discussed. If we are going to
stand strong for the principle of sovereignty and fight for these important
reforms, we must resist any efforts to reward developers who have attempted
to game the system.

Of particular concern is that a number of developers who would benefit from
the grandfather clause have a troubling history when it comes to the
treatment of tribes, including unscrupulous developers that are exploiting
tribes to get around the law.

In most instances of off-reservation casino gaming, developers have
conceived of the projects and sought out vulnerable tribes to facilitate
their gaming ambitions, often ambitions that the developers would not be
able to fulfill but for the presence of tribes. In fact, these tribes are
often far removed from their ancestral or historical locations. This allows
the developer to misuse federal and state laws that were intended to help
tribes, not developers. Developers often abandon tribes when procedural
difficulties appear. As is the case with a casino developer out of Detroit
seeking to put in place a casino in the strategically located town of
Barstow (strategic because it is equidistant between Los Angeles and Las
Vegas), gaming projects have been identified and created by the developers.
Only then do developers go out and locate a tribe that can serve as the
front group for the gaming project.

A number of the casino developers have questionable backgrounds. Many of the
developers are unseemly when evaluated on their own merits, including
persons with purported organized-crime associations and those who have no
background or history in gaming or in supporting Indian-related issues. Here
in California, one developer involved with a tribe had his license revoked
in another state because of alleged misconduct, including the payment of
bribes to public officials. Making the situation even worse, the developers
often refuse to reveal the financial agreements that they have struck with
the tribes.

The casino developers secretly are funding off-reservation casino-gaming
efforts. Developers appear to be using their money to generate tribal
interest in a casino project that will financially benefit the developer. In
a number of instances here in California, developers have funded efforts to
change the leadership of tribes to put in power supporters of the
developers. Often times, as has been the case in California, the developers
helped fund and organize efforts the specific developers provide the money
through front organizations–sometimes including the tribes themselves–but do
not reveal their identities.

These developers are using illicit or illegal means to secure approval. Many
developers appear to have used large contributions to state governments,
which must approve such reservation-shopping moves, in an effort to secure
approval for their projects. In one instance, a developer tried to
contribute campaign money using an array of different organizations.
We believe reform is needed. However, we also believe that the reforms must
be strong and effective, and not reward some of those developers who have
been abusing the system.

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