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Maine Officials Block Penobscot Bingo Upgrade—Again

Controversy Flares over Role of State-Contracted Company

Although Maine officials are not renowned for their expertise in gaming machine technology, they have blocked a bill which would allow the Penobscot Indian Nation to upgrade its old-fashioned bingo operation, asserting that the Nation’s proposed Class II bingo machines are really Class III slot machines—a claim that’s refuted by two of the most reputable companies in the country that manufacture, test and certify gaming machines.

This is the fifth year in a row that the Penobscot Indian Nation has tried to pass a bill to enhance its existing gaming operation—a 30-year-old traditional bingo enterprise that uses a bingo caller and bingo cards. And it’s the fifth year in a row its efforts have been thwarted by the state. This year’s bill—Legislative Document (LD) 227, An Act Concerning High Stakes Beano—would allow the Penobscot Indian Nation (PIN) and the three other Wabanaki tribes -- the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe—to operate high-stakes electronic bingo games and it would lift current restrictions limiting the PIN’s bingo operation to 27 weekends a year and the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s play to 100 times per year.

“The opposition is never-ending and it’s really becoming more frustrating,” Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said. “It seems like the more we do to legitimize our efforts the worse it gets. [The state] totally discredited the companies with the expertise on gaming machines and accused them of being in bed with the tribe. We were called liars and accused of baiting and switching and all kinds of things.”

In the past several years while the tribe has tried to modernize its Penobscot High Stakes Bingo operation, revenues there have taken a plunge from the Hollywood Slots casino in Bangor 10 miles south of the tribe’s Indian Island home in the Penobscot River, Francis said. The state also approved the development of another full blown non Indian casino in Oxford around 100 miles away “while we have not even been able to get a bill out of committee. It is clear that the casinos in Maine now control this business . . . and I find it highly inappropriate that those interests that have been fortunate enough to succeed in 10 years what we have been unable to do in over 30 get to influence the process and decide who and who does not get into the gaming market,” Francis said.

Under normal circumstances, states have no jurisdiction over Class II gaming, which does not require a tribal-state gaming compact or tribal revenue-sharing with the state. In Maine, however, the uniquely restrictive and flawed tribal-state settlement act has allowed the state—backed up by state courts—to claim that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and other federal laws that benefit Indian tribes do not apply to the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet nations.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs (VLA) Committee held a hearing April 3 and a work session May 17 on LD 227, but ultimately the bill was deferred until the next legislative session in early 2014. The deferment was little comfort to Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot representative to the Maine legislature.

“The bill was held over; it wasn’t killed, but nine times out of 10 when it’s held over it gets killed,” Mitchell said. “I said [to the committee] my people feel this is nothing more than economic racism. They just looked at me and didn’t say a word.”

Testifying in opposition to LD 227 were lobbyists for Hollywood Slots and the Oxford Casino, and Lt. Scott Ireland of the Maine State Police, a former driver for Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

Ireland told the VLA Committee during its work session and Indian Country Today Media Network in a phone interview June 12 that the PIN’s proposed bingo machine was actually a slot machine. “It’s not even close to what is proposed in the legislation,” Ireland said. He claimed, among other things, that the PIN’s proposed machine doesn’t let players know what game they’re playing or allow the players’ interaction, and that an “Entertaining Display” screen that mimics the appearance of a slot machine in order to make the game visually exciting actually determines the outcome of the game. “That’s not bingo, that’s a slot machine! That’s what we testified to,” Ireland said.

Eclipse Gaming Systems, a nationally known designer and manufacturer of gaming systems, and BMM Test Labs, an independent global regulatory compliance and certification company operating since 1981, both certified that the Penobscots’ proposed machine is a Class II bingo game. In a May 16 letter to the VLA Committee BMM described some of the internal mechanisms characteristic of Class II bingo machines: a central server matches drawn numbers against a bingo card on an electronic player interface; the central server selects bingo balls randomly and distributes the numbers to all players; the “Entertaining Displays” are different for every game theme, but do not determine the outcome of the game; the game results are determined before the simulated “Entertaining Display” reels stop spinning.

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Ireland implied that Eclipse and BMM they were corrupt by tailoring the reports to the tribe’s advantage. “We put that off as they were hired by the tribe,” Ireland said.

Asked what his expertise is in determining the technology of gaming machines, Ireland bristled. “What is my expertise?” he said. “My expertise is telling the committee that this does not match the bill that was put forward! At my testimony that was given at the capital,” he began, then interrupted himself to say some of his friends are Indians. ‘First of all, I’ll backtrack and say I grew up near a tribal community, I had very good friends that are tribal members, I have very good friends today that are tribal members, so to say that we’re holding back…the state police, we went into this …and if you read the testimony we didn’t go in opposition, we were neither for nor against, we pointed out our areas of concern, said we just want to see the machines so to say that we oppose it or that we’ve been holding it up is absolutely incorrect.”

A dispute has flared over the role Scientific Games Corp. played in forming the state police opinion about the Penobscots’ proposed bingo machine. The company, which makes tickets and software for lotteries, is contracted by the state to audit the slot machines at Hollywood Slots in Bangor and the Oxford Casino. In January Scientific Games purchased slot machine-maker WMS Industries Inc. for about $1.42 billion “to beef up its exposure to the booming casino gaming industry,” Reuters reported. WMS owns the slot machines it leases to Hollywood Slots and the Oxford Casino, putting Scientific Games in the questionable position of now auditing its own machines.

Asked what role Scientific Games played in the forming the state’s opinion, Ireland replied, “They didn’t. We just had them look at a machine and we went out and looked at a slot machine that had the same display as the machines that we were shown [in an online demonstration] at Indian Island.” Asked later in the interview to confirm that Scientific Games was not involved, Ireland said, “I visited one of their…they have a room in this building in the state police headquarters where they have a bunch of machines that they test for the casinos and I went in there and simply made a comparison to the machines that are there and the machines were the same as the proposed bingo machine or beano machine that we were being shown pictures for the tribe. So that was their involvement. There’s no conflict, they didn’t give any interpretation or any guidance whatsoever.”

But Francis says that Ireland told committee members at the work session that Scientific Games told the state police that the Penobscot machine is a slot machine -- and a May 16 letter from the Penobscot chief to the VLA Committee confirms his statement. “But more concerning than the lack of knowledge of our game and bingo by [the Department of Public Safety] charged with oversight is. . . to bring an opinion from Scientific Games which is not a testing lab but supplies machines to casinos in Maine and would be our competitor.” Scientific Games’ opinion “is beyond not impartial and would be construed as flat out unfair seeing as how our only opponents are those very facilities that they supply,” Francis wrote. “Scientific Games is now monitoring equipment they own on the floors of the casinos. Do you think there might be a problem with that?”

Unfortunately, there are no videos or transcripts from work sessions, Francis told ICTMN, but after he sent his letter the state police never refuted to the committee or the tribe that Scientific Games had said the bingo machine was a slot machine.

A spokeswoman at Scientific Games could not comment by posting time on what role, if any, the company played in determining the classification of the Penobscots’ bingo machine but promised to pursue an answer.

Penobscot officials are frustrated with the state’s consistent success at preventing the tribe from offering modern gaming while allowing non Indian commercial casino gaming to flourish that they are ready to take their complaint to the federal government.

Penobscot Council member Donna Loring, an author, playwright and former Penobscot representative to the legislature, said the state’s message is clear. “It's ok for the State with their scratch tickets and power ball, Hollywood Slots Casino and Oxford Casino and Scarborough Downs to operate and with SLOT machines, but not the tribes,” Loring said. “The historic record proves this. The ironic thing here is that the tribes had the idea of gaming in the first place in 2003 and the whole thing gets taken away from them and the State and the gaming powers that be now are making millions and the State of Maine is fighting tooth and nail to keep the Penobscot Nation from bringing in machines to be competitive. I don't care what you call the machines. It is blatant discrimination and racism. Furthermore I think a full investigation of this situation needs to happen through the US Inspector General's Office.”

 Francis agreed. “I think we owe it to the tribe to have this looked at. We were the first Indian gaming operation in Indian county. We helped the Mashantucket Pequots set up their bingo game. It’s been a staple here for more than 30 years and we have jobs to protect,” Francis said. “This is exactly what happens when federal protections are taken away from tribes -- states do what they want and what they want to do with a smile is continue the termination era policies. So, yeah, I’m ready to explore this legal avenue.”

The tribe’s effort to put bills in to the State Legislature to get permission for anything to do with gaming is doomed from the start, Loring said. “There will always be legalities thrown in the way as roadblocks and deterrents. The only way we can get a fair hearing or an equal opportunity is through intervention by the United States Government,” Loring said. “This whole conversation makes me think of what Judge Judy use to say in situations very much like this one: ‘Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.’”