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Gaming commission VP 'Chuck' Choney to retire

WASHINGTON - For six years in the military and almost 26 in the FBI, Cloyce V. ''Chuck'' Choney prided himself on avoiding service in Washington, D.C.

''So here I come,'' he said with a chuckle. ''After I retire, I come here.''

Only the best of reasons was going to get him here, and it showed up in the form of the National Indian Gaming Commission. Choney's five years as a commissioner have coincided with a doubling of annual revenue in the Indian gaming industry, from more than $12 billion to just about $25 billion. Given the cash-intensive nature of gaming, the scams and schemes inspired by that many greenbacks just keep coming. But Indian gaming today is by and large a clean industry, according to Choney. Retiring now for a second time, as NIGC vice chairman, he can say it with confidence. He knows the difference.

Choney's marquee contribution has been as a catalyst and organizer of the Indian Gaming Working Group. Nowadays, the collaboration of NIGC, the FBI and six other federal agencies pools investigative information and puts on multiple regional training sessions a year. The training is designed to promote the spotting, investigation and prosecution of money laundering, card scams, blackmail, gang involvement and other markers of high-dollar casino theft. First-rate instructors draw federal law enforcement officers, local U.S. attorneys and tribal officials, Choney said; attendance at the three-day sessions reaches 100 on the average.

Tribal regulation remains the first line of defense against casino-related crime. (Also worth noting here: Indian casino-related crime seldom originates with tribal involvement. Most often, Choney explained, high-dollar casino scam requires ''inside help'' - the pit boss or card dealers, for instance.) But Choney said the IGWG (with oversight of the FBI Indian Country/Special Jurisdiction Unit) also contributes to the integrity of the industry.

By contrast, he remembers the years when tribal gaming was taking off in Oklahoma. Even as he was preparing to retire from the FBI's Oklahoma City division in 2001, reports would come in of casino scams. ''People were coming to us, and there were a lot of agents in the office, a lot of them who are accountants - didn't know gaming.'' So the bureau wouldn't investigate, U.S. attorneys wouldn't prosecute unless the dollar amount surpassed specified thresholds, local and state law enforcement had no jurisdiction over tribal casinos, and NIGC jurisdiction was limited.

Institutional ill-will was never a factor of any kind in Choney's view. ''They hit it right on the head. They didn't have the expertise. To work a gaming case, you really have to know gaming. You have to know what statutes are being violated and how they're being violated. Now the FBI's getting more educated on these scams.''

The change began after Choney signed on with NIGC and, as a commissioner, began to learn the ins and outs of Indian gaming to a degree he had never approached before. The watershed case occurred when a scheduled, routine commission audit in Idaho showed $65 million unaccounted for at a tribal racetrack or ''racino.'' Subsequent spot audits showed still more money unaccounted for. This time, the FBI tried to help and brought along others. Thomas Heffelfinger, then U.S. attorney for Minnesota (now with the law firm Best and Flanagan in Minneapolis), took part in the working group and initiated discussions within the Department of Justice Subcommittee on Indian Issues that would lower the dollar threshold for prosecuting crime at tribal casinos. ''The majority of them [U.S. attorneys] did, and some of them went so far as even just waiving the threshold. In other words, you catch anybody doing some kind of scams and schemes at a casino, we'll prosecute.''

The eventual full-fledged investigation that took its cue from the ''racino'' audit resulted in the 2004 indictment of 17 individuals, eight of them known Mafiosi of the Gambino crime family, Choney said.

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A more recent notable success of NIGC oversight began in San Diego, he added, though the scam itself extended up the coast to Washington state and inland to Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. ''There was an Asian crime gang that was going up and down the West Coast, just ripping the casinos off. ... Most of them were Vietnamese. They were using what they call a false shuffle scam. They were compromising some of the dealers by paying off or blackmail, or other means, and they were introducing loaded decks at the blackjack games. And so they ripped them off for about $25 million. Fact is, it was the NIGC who uncovered it in southern California. And we went to the FBI for assistance, and this time they bent over backwards to help us.

''Basically the FBI knows now that when we [NIGC] come to you, it's serious. This is just no little routine matter, you know. We're talking about some big bucks and a lot of people, an interstate aspect to it. So now they know - not only the FBI, but the Inspector General's office for Interior [Department of Interior] know - that when we come to them for help, you know, we need help.''

Because NIGC sees no end in sight to Indian gaming revenues, and its currency isn't stocks or bonds or futures trading with their paper trails but ''greenbacks, hard cash money,'' the scams aren't likely to end. ''You've got these people out there who come in with all kinds of scams, you know. We'll catch on to one, next thing there's another one.''

Still, Choney vouches for Indian gaming as largely devoid of corruption. ''By and large, it is. But you have to stay on top of it. You can't let your guard down, you can't get complacent. If you do, I mean it'll overtake you. ... By and large, Native American gaming is well-regulated, well-run, well-managed, a lot of oversight there. So yes, it is clean. But it hasn't always been like that. And like I said, you've got to stay on top of it.''

Like the FBI only more so, tribes have gotten the message. ''They're the first in line, in their own regulation, in their own regulatory authority. However, we do look over their shoulder to make sure they do what they're supposed to do. You know they're spending all this money on regulation - it's paying off. ... The tribes, like I said, they're responsible, they're the first line, and they do a - in my opinion, they do a good job. They have good professional regulators out there. We had one tribe, it was the Pequot, who said, 'We're making too much money not to do it right.' The smaller outfits, they say, 'We want to make some money, we want to increase our revenue, so we're going to do it right.' And they are, they are.''

So he can retire, having left his mark on Indian gaming, logging probably 200 arrests as an FBI agent, serving the nation in war, and surviving Washington with the support of his wife, Muskogee Creek licensed psychologist Sandra K. Choney.

Last time, retirement came early; after closing out a few projects around the house in Shawnee, Okla., he concluded that 57 was too young. He started a business checking employee backgrounds and had grown it to just about the point where he could keep busy, but not too busy, handling it all on his own. Then he got word from a Kiowa cousin that NIGC was looking for an Indian commissioner with law enforcement experience.

This time, after almost 50 years in the work force, the time is right for Choney to do something for himself - mainly, spend time with his wife. Also on the agenda are spoiling the grandchildren and getting more in touch with both sides of his culture; he is enrolled Comanche, Kiowa on his mother's side. His retirement is slated for the end of this year.

''I'm not what you would consider a traditional Indian. Grew up in Lawton, Oklahoma. I'll be the first to admit I'm an urban Indian. Never went to boarding school, wasn't raised in a rural area. But both mother and father, when we were real young, we all went to pow wows, heard a lot of singing, my mother spoke her language, as did my dad, and so we picked up a little bit of both. ... So we were raised Indian, but not in a traditional Indian setting.

''Then after I started getting a little older, I started getting more involved in Indian activities. I Straight Dance, I'm a Gourd dancer, I'm a member of three different tribal organizations, you know. The Kiowa Gourd Clan, the Comanche War Scouts and the Kiowa Blackleggings Society. And I've just recently been inducted into the Comanche Indian Veterans Association. And that all involves dancing and singing, especially the Gourd Clan. I find I really, really enjoy doing that, and I look forward to that.''