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California Gambling Chairman Hensley steps down

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California Gambling Control Commission Chairman John Hensley finally stepped down on April 30, nearly four months after he gave his resignation notice.

This comes at a time that is viewed as critical for the fledgling Commission, which is currently taking part in the re-negotiation of the tribal gaming compacts and drafting a set of regulations for all gaming operations, including both Indian casinos and non-tribal card clubs.

"Mr. Hensley's departure is a great loss for the Commission," says Commission Deputy Director Chris Lindstom.

Hensley's departure leaves the Commission with only three filled seats and two vacancies. Though the Commission was created in October of 2000, Gov. Davis, who must appoint the commissioners, only filled four of the positions, causing some quarters to speculate as to the future viability of the Commission itself.

Many tribal leaders believe that the Commission has a redundant role in the state and that the Justice Department's Division of Gambling Control could adequately handle the Commission's duties. In fact the Commission and the Justice Department have had several small-scale run-ins regarding their respective scope of jurisdiction.

Hensley cited the reason for the delay in his departure as a special favor to Gov. Davis who had asked him to stay on during the current tribal-state gaming compact re-negotiations.

Apparently, in the interim Hensley had taken another job as vice-president of Security Screening Systems Group in San Diego, and felt that he needed to move on to his new position.

Though there has been increased speculation about the Commission since Hensley's departure, Amber Pasricha, a spokeswoman for Gov. Davis, says her boss is committed to the commission.

"The governor has been and is one of the staunchest supporters of the Commission," says Pasricha. "as such he has issued executive orders enforcing the Commission."

Pasricha says that Gov. Davis "will definitely" appoint a successor to Hensley, but will not release publicly any names at this time, and only says that there is someone that the governor is "looking at" for the chairmanship of the Commission.

As for the vacant, non-chairman seat on the commission, Pasricha says that she does not know if Davis plans on filling that seat any time in the near future.

However, last week the Sacramento Bee stated that an unnamed source had told the paper that two people had applied for the job and both had already been turned down by the governor's office.

Commission Deputy Director Lindstrom also dismisses the thought that this spells trouble for the Commission. He says that the remaining members are "highly qualified" and along with the Commission staff will "pick up the slack."

Hensley's tenure as the chairman of the Commission has drawn mixed reviews from California's gaming tribes and lobbying groups.

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Some tribal leaders, most notably Pechanga chairman Mark Macarro, accused Hensley of expanding the scope of powers of the commission beyond their original intent.

For example, Hensley clashed with tribes over the disbursement of funds intended for non-gaming tribes and those with small operations. Tribal leaders accused Hensley of unnecessarily holding up disbursements and publicly questioned whether the Commission had the scope of authority to control these payments.

Just last month, Hensley issued a controversial memo to one of the state's top political leaders, Senate president Pro-Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, claiming that some tribes were as much as two quarters in arrears of their payments.

Hensley further blamed the method in which some tribes calculated their profits, which differed from the Commission's methodology, as the reason in which some tribes had not made prompt payment. He hinted that interest payments might be due, which led some tribal leaders to accuse the outgoing chairman of sour grapes.

Though Hensley's approach to his position alienated some, he had his allies as well, including Stand Up for California, an anti-casino group, Director Cheryl Schmit.

Schmit says that she is "discouraged" by Hensley's departure; however, she does not believe that his leaving signals the end for the Commission.

"Hopefully the governor will find someone to fill his shoes, but Chairman Hensley is going to be a tough act to follow," says Schmit.

However, many tribal leaders, including Pechanga chairman Macarro are happy to see Hensley go, whom he says is responsible for "megalomaniacal empire-building."

"Make no mistake, we're gratified to see him go - I feel vindicated at his leaving ... particularly after having pointed out his shortcomings during his senate confirmation hearing, " says Macarro.

However, Macarro also says that Hensley is not the only one to lead the Commission on an "errant jurisdictional path" and lists Commission Executive Director Pete Melnicoe and Gov. Davis' Indian Affairs Advisor David Rosenberg as sources of antagonism in tribal state relations.

"If Melnicoe and Rosenberg were to leave as well, then we'd have a positive basis on which we could all move forward."

However, it is the governor that Macarro has the greatest problem and feels that tribal problems with the Commission will not change unless Davis changes his views on tribal sovereignty, which he sees as the fundamental problem between the Commission and the tribes.

Though Hensley could not be reached for comment, he was quoted in the San Diego Union Tribune as saying that he's offered to stay on in the role of consultant if needed and encouraged Davis to find a successor. In the same article he also encouraged the governor to "appoint a viable law enforcement person to take my position as chairman."

Hensley, who is of Comanche and Cherokee ancestry, was appointed to the chairmanship of the nascent Commission in August 2000. He had previously served as assistant commissioner at the United States Customs Service.