INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – An independent company that tests gaming machines has reported the Class II pull-tab bingo machines the Penobscot Indian Nation plans to use are in compliance with a new state law.
But Penobscot leaders say the report may not be enough to persuade state police to license their new machines. They allege police and lobbyists for Hollywood Slots, the state’s only commercial gaming operation, are working together to make sure the Bangor-based casino remains the only game in town.
The allegation raises questions about ethics and conflict of interest on the part of the state police.
Eclipse, a nationally-known independent company with expertise in gaming machine compliance testing, issued a 15-page report May 21 of its review and analysis of a particular brand of pull-tab machine that Penobscot has been developing for use in its bingo operation on Indian Island and, potentially, by the other Wabanaki nations.
The report says of the Penobscot machines that “each pull-tab outcome is pre-determined and stored in a pool before being dispensed. The software acts as an electronic ‘dispenser’ that dispenses tickets, where the element of chance is provided by the ticket itself and not the dispenser.”
The Penobscot machines are, therefore, in compliance with Legislative Document 1731, a new law that says, “The element of chance (in pull-tab machines) must be provided by the ticket itself, not by the dispenser.”
The state is involved in Class II gaming in Maine because of the uniquely restrictive tribal-state settlement act in which the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does not apply to the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet nations.
This latest Maine gaming controversy came to light when the Bangor Daily News reported on May 20 that the state police had approved 50 Class II gaming machines for the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township. The state police claim that the Passamaquoddy machines comply with the new state law because the element of chance is provided by the bar code tickets the machines produce.
Contrary to the expert report, the state police claim the computer in the Penobscot machines provides the element of chance and, therefore, are slot machines.
“The Passamaquoddy really did their homework. They wanted to do everything right and they were good to work with,” said Lt. David Bowler, of the Maine State Police gaming division.
But Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said his nation worked for more than a year to educate the state police about pull-tab machines.
“We worked very meticulously on this bill. We knew what the bill said and so did the state police, because they sat in on every one of those meetings – Lt. Bowler personally – and he understood, because we talked about our machine and how it worked and that it would comply with the new law. So, the bill passed, and everyone was crystal clear.
“For us it’s a little disheartening to see that almost immediately after that legislation was passed, with all the time and resources that we spent on it, to find the state police working hand-in-hand with the other gaming interest in the state and manipulating the law and interpreting it according to their purposes to get their view across in terms of how it’s going to be implemented, by getting involved in the Passamaquoddy effort that, quite frankly, I think cheats them out of a much better product.”
The bingo machine the state approved for Passamaquoddy is a decade-old type that is less competitive than the more technologically sophisticated machines developed by Penobscot.
Francis said he believes Hollywood Slots told the state police to recommend the bingo machine to Passamaquoddy in order to set a low standard for the type of machine Indian nations can use.
“And why? Because we have a huge gaming lobby six miles from our reservation that doesn’t want us to have any tools to protect or enhance our operation. They have absolutely wrecked a three decade-old business on our reservation that we’re struggling to keep above water right now.”
Wayne Mitchell, the Penobscot legislative representative, said he wrote and sponsored LD 1731 in order to modernize the Penobscots’ old-fashioned high stakes bingo operation, but the bill applies to all of the federally recognized tribes in Maine.
Mitchell said both lobbyist Cheryl Timberlake and Bowler of the Maine State Police openly and consistently lobbied against LD 1731.
Timberlake, a lobbyist for Hollywood Slots owner Penn National Gaming Inc., was paid $5,000 a month in January, February and March to lobby against LD 1731, among other bills, according to the Maine Ethics Commission Web site, She could not be reached for comment.
Bowler is also registered with the commission as a “state employee legislative designee,” that is, a lobbyist.
“I think there’s an ethics issue here with the state police. How can they be lobbyists, and then – without any legal training – interpret the law, and then enforce the law?” Mitchell said.
Bowler’s relationship with Hollywood Slots remains unclear.
Bowler asked that any questions be sent to him in an e-mail so that if there were any “that I can’t answer due to the fact that it jumps over to the slot machine world, I have a guy that runs the Hollywood Slots and handles all the slot machine questions and I can ask him.”
But he later said the Maine State Police has never allowed Hollywood Slots to participate in its gaming decisions.
“The state police maintains the highest level of professional conduct at all times. Further, Hollywood Slots played no role in this decision nor would they play any role in future decisions.”
He said the Gambling Control Board regulates for-profit gaming, which includes the activities at Hollywood Slots. The board is a separate division of the Public Safety Department, Bowler said.
“The law, as written and approved, is very clear about the machines. We have provided outreach to the Penobscot Indian Nation and will continue to work with them in the future. To date, they have not produced a machine for inspection, which limits the utility of any third-party information. But again, the law is clear about what is allowable.”
Mitchell said he believes that Bowler and Bob Welch of the Gambling Control Board routinely work together on gaming regulation. Bowler has said on a number of occasions that he doesn’t know much about pull-tabs, Mitchell said, “but within minutes of being told what our pull-tab machines would be, he told us they were slots, which they are not.”
Slot machines are random number generators; the Penobscot machines have a finite set of deals and then have to reset, Mitchell said.
“Further, Lt. Bowler was supplied with narrative and descriptive information all thru the process of how the system would work. It was only after the governor had signed the bill at a subsequent meeting that he said our machines were illegal and were slot machines.
“Now I’m told today after they have seen the third party analysis that the state police cannot license electronic pull-tab games as we proposed, only paper tabs. I just wish they would make up their minds,” he said.
“It’s obvious to me there is more going on here on their end than they care to admit. It’s obvious to me that Penn National is trying to keep competition at a minimum from the tribe and is influencing how much and what type of gaming we are allowed to have.”