Indian casinos' money, clout under scrutiny

By Toby Eckert

June 20, 2005

WASHINGTON – When Sen. John McCain said recently that it was "long overdue time" to review the federal law that paved the way for lucrative Indian casinos, tribal leaders took notice.

The Arizona Republican, after all, helped write the 1988 law and is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Also, a scandal involving a powerful Republican lobbyist who represented Indian casinos has brought new scrutiny to the $19-billion-a-year industry and its growing clout in Washington.

Lawmakers have held a flurry of hearings on Indian gaming and some are considering legislation that would impose more regulations on the industry, including new rules for off-reservation gambling, a hot topic in California. One House member has asked President Bush to order a moratorium on new casinos.

Tribal leaders say that they have been unfairly tainted by the alleged transgressions of one lobbyist and that they have only taken their rightful seat at the table in Washington's power game. Regulations on their casinos are well-enforced and working, they insist.

"Gaming has helped us, first and foremost, to rebuild our communities, to build schools and hospitals, take care of our elders, help us to have running water in homes," said Ernest Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. "But yes, we've earmarked money to do lobbying. And yes, we are more visible and we're going to continue to make that a priority. Participating in this process is a right that we have."

Some experts believe that the federal government's relationship with gaming tribes is at a crossroads.

"It's sort of like there's been a bit of a perfect storm brewing on this recently," said Steven Light, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota.

In addition to the questions being raised about casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his close ties to top lawmakers, members of Congress and outside groups are expressing concern about the growing number of proposals for off-reservation casinos, the process for granting tribes federal recognition and whether there is adequate enforcement of gambling laws.

"Never in our wildest dreams at the time of the formulation of that (1988) legislation did we envision that Indian gaming would become the $19 billion-a-year enterprise that it is today," said McCain, who will preside over a hearing next week on tribal lobbying. "It's long-overdue time to review the impact and implications of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act from a broad variety of aspects."

Light, who testified at a hearing on casino regulation in April, said in an interview: "I don't think there's any doubt that there will be some congressional action on this. I very much had a sense that this is something that Senator McCain, in particular, is very interested in acting upon."

McCain is considered a likely presidential contender in 2008. Conservatives, who dominate the Republican Party's nominating process, have criticized his support of Indian gaming in the past.

Tribal leaders are wary.

"We are a little bit frustrated that we continue to hear how tribal gaming is insufficiently regulated," Norman DesRosiers, gaming commissioner for the Viejas tribe, which runs a casino in Alpine, told McCain's committee at the April hearing. "I don't think more legislation is necessarily the answer."

The tribes have plenty of resources to get their views across. In the nearly two decades since the gaming law was passed, tribal campaign contributions at the federal level have soared, from $1.7 million in 1990 to $7.1 million in 2004, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Numerous California tribes are among the top contributors, including the Viejas, the Pechanga band of Temecula and the Barona Band of Mission Indians in Lakeside. During that period, tribes have become one of the top campaign contributors in California state races.

Tribal federal lobbying expenditures have also grown, from $10.1 million in 1999 to $17.1 million in 2004, according to an analysis by

In a town where money means access, the tribes arguably have greater political influence than at any other time in the history of their relationship with the federal government. Beyond gaming, they say, it has allowed them to lobby more effectively on issues American Indians face, including widespread poverty on many reservations.

But their clout sometimes has also brought negative publicity.

Abramoff is accused of working to shut down Indian casinos in Texas, then turning around and offering to help reopen one of the closed gambling houses in return for $4.2 million paid to his secret partner, public relations executive Michael Scanlon.

The incident has raised numerous questions about top lawmakers' ties to Abramoff, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who took trips funded by the lobbyist, and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who agreed to sponsor legislation to help the Texas tribe, which gave Ney $32,000 in campaign contributions.

"Jack Abramoff in some ways brought the tribes into the modern age of lobbying and what it means to be influential with Congress," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Tribal officials say Abramoff took advantage of his clients and that the scandal should not be used to tar the industry.

"There are a lot of good, reputable firms in Washington, D.C., that are representing tribes," said Stevens, chairman of the Indian Gaming Association. "A lot of people focus on the Abramoff issue. Most of us folks don't know Abramoff, never met him."

Another issue that has come to the fore is off-reservation gaming. In California, numerous tribes want to open casinos away from traditional tribal lands. One, the Lytton tribe of Sonoma County, got a powerful boost when Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, slipped a provision into a 2000 spending bill that took land into trust for the tribe near San Francisco.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has introduced legislation to undo the move, which she called "a dangerous precedent."

"It is clear to me that when Californians voted overwhelmingly to support Indian gaming with Propositions 5 and 1A, it was with the understanding that casinos would only be permitted on 'Indian' or 'tribal' lands," she said. "I also believe the trend toward off-reservation gaming has been especially hurtful to the majority of tribes who have followed the regular process."

Miller has defended his provision as "the fair and right thing to do in this particular case," noting that the Lytton tribe had to agree not to open a casino in Sonoma County in return for having their recognition as a tribe restored.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, chairman of the House Resources Committee, is considering legislation that would have a broader application than Feinstein's, which only addresses the Lytton situation.

Pombo's measure would eliminate the current law's narrow allowance for off-reservation gambling but permit the creation of two "Indian Economic Opportunity Zones" in each state, one on reservation and one off. Numerous casinos could be built in the zones, but local governments could veto the projects.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, initially open to off-reservation casinos, is now demanding tribes meet tough conditions before he will consider them.

Light of the University of North Dakota noted that only three such sites have ever been approved by the federal government.

"One can make a pretty solid argument that (the federal law) doesn't contain loopholes that have the breadth that some are saying it does," he said. "If you look closely at the law, it has highly specific conditions under which land can be taken into trust."

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