Chumash: A tribal gaming nightmare

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It was the nightmare those involved in tribal government gaming have feared
since passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988: the disclosures
in October of regulatory improprieties by the Santa Ynez Band of Mission
Indians in Santa Barbara County.

The blatant disregard for proper regulation of the tribe's Chumash Casino,
one of the largest and most profitable operations in California, was a
devastating body blow to the entire tribal government gaming industry.

The Los Angeles Times reported last month that seven current and former
Chumash gaming commissioners had criminal backgrounds, including
convictions for robbery, theft and assault with a deadly weapon. The
Commission Chairman, Gilbert Cash, was, awaiting trial on felony charges of
beating his wife. He was in the throes of filing for bankruptcy for the
fourth time in a decade and faced a $60,000 tax bill.

"We don't want to see people hired in a casino if they have huge credit
problems," Philip Hogen, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission,
told the Times. "The gaming regulators don't handle the dollars, but they
ought to be held to similar standards."

Finally, the Times disclosed that Tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta played
loose with the rules at a Chumash Casino blackjack table, requesting
additional green ($25) chips after he dropped his stash.

So much for the integrity of blackjack at the Chumash casino. The incident
was reminiscent of the days Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack" dealt cards at the
Sands Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, before the era of modern gaming
regulations.

Armenta later was fined by the commission, which a tribal attorney said was
evidence that the regulatory system does, indeed, work. That was, of
course, a ridiculous remark. The issue isn't that Armenta was reprimanded.
As a tribal official, he shouldn't have been gambling at his casino in the
first place. It was a blatant conflict of interest.

And if the regulatory system put in place by the Santa Ynez is operated by
felons, believe me, it is not working.

I and others have long advocated that tribes, as sovereign governments,
have the right to regulate casinos and other business enterprises without
interference from state, federal and local authorities.

For some 15 years tribal trade associations and lobbyists have railed
against Indian gaming critics who repeatedly suggested that tribal
governments were not capable of regulating their businesses without
non-Indian oversight.

I personally have found repulsive the repeated analogy by some members of
the press and politicians that tribal regulations were tantamount to the
"fox watching the hen house." That is racist. Do we assume state
governments are incapable of regulating their lotteries and race tracks
without federal oversight?

Tribal gaming associations, lobbyists and trade publications have stood up
for the right of Native nations as sovereigns to govern their own lands and
regulate their own businesses, including casinos. We have argued time and
time again that tribes are capable of doing the job; that Indian gaming
enterprises are more highly regulated, in fact, than commercial gaming and
state lotteries.

Then the Santa Ynez turned us all into liars.

The Chumash fiasco will be used by critics of Indian gaming as an example
of how not to operate and regulate a casino. It is now left to the many
Indian nations who do the job right to tell their story.

People like Gaming Commissioner Eddie Gibson with the Mississippi Band of
Choctaw Indians, Jerry Cunningham with the Oneida Nation of New York and
Norman DesRosiers with the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego
must reach out to the media and tell their version of Indian gaming
regulations.

LEARNING FROM MISTAKES

Many Indian nations, including the Viejas Band, have tribal ordinances that
prohibit those with felony convictions from serving as gaming regulators or
working in tribal casinos. No exceptions.

Viejas, which conducts extensive criminal and audit investigations of all
employees, will often reject or issue "conditional" licenses to employees
with a pattern of misdemeanor offenses.

As is the case with other tribal nations, Viejas ordinances require
background license investigations of all gaming vendors. But Viejas also
reserves the right to subject non-gaming vendors providing more than
$25,000 in goods and services to the Viejas Casino to licensing and
background investigations, a practice virtually unheard of in the
commercial gambling industry. Some 200 non-gaming vendors are currently
licensed by the Tribal Gaming Office.

The tribe spends nearly $4 million a year regulating its gaming enterprise.

Activities of the Viejas Tribal Gaming Office and proposed rules and
regulations promulgated by the Tribal Gaming Commission are subject to
review by a three-member Gaming Review Board consisting of non-tribal
officials appointed by the tribal council. All background investigative
reports by the Tribal Gaming Office are open to inspection and review by
state and federal gaming regulatory agencies.

"The tribal council gave me their assurances they were committed to
effective, competent regulations and that they would give me the resources
necessary to do the job," DesRosiers said. "They've done that."

INTEGRITY IS THE KEY

Gambling is a privileged industry, whether the casino is run by a tribal
government or a publicly held company. The reputation, operation and
regulation of the tribal government gaming industry must be above reproach.

It is not enough for tribes to claim their status as sovereign nations
gives them the right to operate government gaming without scrutiny from
federal and non-Indian agencies. Tribes operating casinos have to prove to
their customers, politicians, the press and the public that they are
capable of operating and regulating the games. That requires transparency.

I'm not suggesting that tribes cede their sovereignty or regulatory
authority to outside, non-Indian agencies. But if transparency requires
that the media and non-Indian agencies have access to audits, the
surveillance room and background investigative reports, so be it.

The only thing tribes have to fear are those tribes who shouldn't be in the
business. We now know at least one of them.

Dave Palermo is special assistant to the Hopi Tribe and a freelance writer.
He can be reached at dgpalermo@aol.com.