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Governor stalling Catawba plans for second bingo

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ROCK HILL, S.C. - In its effort to build a second bingo hall in South Carolina, progress of the Catawba Indian Nation (CIN) was stalled recently by Gov. Mark Sanford who was silent to the tribe's call for a meeting.

Late in November, Chief Gilbert Blue sent a letter to Gov. Sanford, asking him to meet with the tribe to discuss the tribe's planned bingo hall in Santee, S.C., and the governor's position on the plans, but after two weeks, the governor had not responded.

It has been nearly five months since the plans for a bingo hall in Santee were announced. The tribe wants this bingo hall to be under the regulations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, instead of the current South Carolina Catawba Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1993.

People in Santee are all for the tribe's plans, but several people from outside the city and county have expressed their opposition, most saying if the Catawbas are allowed to established a high stakes bingo in the county, they will soon be asking for a casino facility.

Chief Blue has publicly stated several times that his tribe is interested only in building a bingo hall according to the state law and the tribe does not want a casino, although the tribe apparently can legally build a casino, using the state lottery and Power Ball as forerunners.

A public relations representative for Gov. Sanford told Indian Country Today in a telephone conversation that Catawba bingo was a federal matter. "That's a federal issue more than a state issue here," the governor's assistant said. He did not know if the governor would meet with the tribe. "I don't know. I am not Governor Sanford, so I don't know," he said.

He passed the telephone call to another assistant who said that Chris Drummond, press officer, would have better information. Drummond was not present and the assistant said he would leave a message for Drummond to call. The press officer never called back.

Catawbas already have a bingo hall established in Rock Hill. The bingo halls were permitted in cooperation with the state of South Carolina, which in 1993 promised to allow the Catawbas two bingo halls, adding video poker to the package, and the state legislators passed a law allowing the two gaming halls.

In addition to the 1993 state law, the federal government also passed a "restoration of federal trust relationship" law "to restore the trust relationship between the tribe and United States." The federal government paid most of the $50 million settlement money.

The Catawba desire for a second bingo hall came about when the state lottery, allowed in 2001, reduced tribal income by more than 60 percent.

In addition, tribal records are being audited by the federal government, so the tribe has few or no contracts with the BIA.

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Ben Picotte of the BIA in Nashville, Tenn. said, "We don't do audits. The tribe does the audit. When the tribe contracts with the BIA, one of the requirements that the tribe has to do is to obtain an audit for every year that they have contracted the program."

He continued. "If the tribe wanted to run BIA programs, they have the option to go ahead and contract those programs. We enter into an agreement to do so. We provide funds to operate those programs. However, now, we don't have an agreement in place (with the tribe) and we no longer provide those funds.

"My understanding is there is an individual there (in Catawba) now assisting the tribe, being funded by the Indian Health Service, to go ahead and assemble those books, so they can be audited. Once they are audited, if there any findings, then we've got to work on those findings, like if there are questions in costs, questions in activities. For instance, if the audit shows that there is money spent for something that it was not suppose to, then we issue a bill of collection.

"If it shows there is a weakness in financial management system, we won't contract with those tribes until those are straightened out."

Since the Catawbas are forced to survive on what is now a heavily reduced bingo income, the tribe has cancelled Christmas activities and laid off some employees.

Since the South Carolina governor is not responding to the tribe and to ease the hardship, Catawba leadership recently planned to set up video poker machines on the reservation near Rock Hill, although video poker in the county was banned in 2000.

Tribal lawyer Jerry Jay Bender of Columbia, S.C., explained during a telephone conversation that Catawba leaders feel their 1993 land settlement act allows them to put video poker machines on the reservation and using that as the basis for their plans. Toward the end of the November, a notice was posted for hiring of employees at the planned video poker hall.

Paragraph G of the Catawba Indian Claims Settlement Act states: "The tribe may permit on its reservation video poker or similar electronic devices to the same extent that the devices are authorized by state law. The tribe is subject to all taxes, license requirements, regulations, and fees governing electronic play devices provided by state law, except if the reservation is located in a county or counties which prohibit the devices pursuant to state law, the tribe nonetheless must be permitted to operate the devices on the reservation if the governing body of the tribe so authorizes, subject to all taxes, license requirements, regulations, and fees governing electronic play devices provided by state law."

Bender explained that no final decision has been made concerning video poker. If the tribe does not get the bingo hall in Santee, then the next step for the tribe would be to set up a video poker hall on the reservation, he said.

This has prompted the opposition to voice opinions loudly against the tribe's plans for a video poker hall. Led by State Sen. Robert W. Hayes, R-RH, who in a recent press conference held in connection with local church groups explained that state laws were the same on the Catawba Indian Reservation as anywhere in the state.

He was quoted in the local newspaper saying, "Video poker is illegal. This is an attempt to bring big time gambling back to South Carolina, and we don't want it." The newspaper failed to mention the South Carolina state lottery and Power Ball.

In a telephone conversation with Sen. Hayes' office, his assistant said Sen. Hayes was up for re-election in 2004. The newspaper did not mention if Hayes was using the Catawba Nation for his re-election bid.