California tribes top political donor list

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California tribes donated around $7.3 million to California politicians between 1995 and 1998, according to a report released by California Common Cause - which filed a subsequent complaint (see sidebar) - early this month.

California Common Cause, a non-profit, non-partisan political watch organization, also listed the largest givers and receivers of political donations in the posting. Three tribes exceeded $1 million. The Morongo Band of Mission Indians topped the list on the givers side with more than $1.7 million during that time. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians were a close second with more than $1.6 million, and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians clocked in with nearly $1.35 million.

The recipients list shows Democrat California State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa was the biggest beneficiary with $1.14 million in contributions. Senate Speaker Pro-Tem John Burton, also a Democrat, received slightly more than $1 million and Gov. Gray Davis took in $988,618.

So what specifically is the problem? Jim Knox, executive director of Common Cause, said the main problems have been set in terms of priorities.

"While we recognize that it is in the Indian tribes best interest to donate this amount of money, we question if it's right that any special interest group be able to control power through money," Knox said.

Asked for specifics, Knox said the governor and legislative offices have spent too much time on Indian gaming issues, shunting aside other major pieces of policy such as transportation and water policy.

"That's baloney," says Rich Milner, spokesperson for Speaker Villaraigosa. "Common Cause doesn't have a shred of evidence that any more legislative time was taken up by Indian gaming issues than would ordinarily be due. The California State Assembly deals with 5,000 introduced bills a year. I can think, off the top of my head, of 20 major pieces of legislation that we spent more time on than Indian gaming."

Milner also rebuffs charges that his boss is in the pocket of gaming interests. "During the negotiations for the gaming compact the tribes wanted to be able to operate their casinos without unionized labor. Speaker Villaraigosa voted for unionized labor and took some heat for it."

Knox said California Common Cause does not oppose Indian gaming but rather undue financial influence.

"All Common Cause is saying is that we don't want our government run by special-interest groups, no matter who they are. We've only singled out Indian gaming because they are the largest donors," Knox said.

Morongo Tribe Public Relations Counsel Waltona Manion feels that Common Causes' complaint is based on misconceptions about tribal entities. "Indian tribes are not special interest groups. They are sovereign governments. It's ridiculous to equate the two."

Manion says there is no Indian representation in the California Legislature and these donations are a matter of survival. She points to the history of governmental hostility and the bad conditions of many California tribal lands a decade ago.

"Common Cause doesn't realize that, as sovereign governments, the tribes have the same general legislative concerns that any other citizen of the state has, water, transportation and so on. These needs have been ignored by the state for years and the effects were devastating. These donations are just necessary to make sure that certain California citizens' needs are met."