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Yakama settles NIGC violation for $5,000

WASHINGTON – The Yakama Nation has agreed to pay a fine of $5,000 to settle a notice of violation from the National Indian Gaming Commission that could have resulted in fines up to $25,000 a day per violation for distributing per capita payments to each of its citizens last Christmas.

A federal administrative law judge in Washington signed an order approving the settlement agreement between the Yakama Nation and the NIGC Nov. 4. The $5,000 payment fully and finally resolves the complaint filed against the tribe.

“We are pleased to have resolved the misunderstanding with the federal government regarding the nation’s infusion of necessary monies into our local economy last Christmas, when money was especially tight in our community,” said Yakama Tribal Council Chairman Ralph Sampson Jr. “We are happy that Legends Casino’s operations were never disrupted by the NIGC. Our gaming enterprise continues to generate monies to fund governmental operations and services for our people, including Yakama’s first gaming per capita distributions this fall.”

Former NIGC Chairman Phil Hogen issued the notice of violation Sept. 1 to Sampson; Wallace Yallup, chairman of the nation’s Tribal Gaming Corporation; and Roger Fiander, chairman of its Gaming Commission.

The complaint said the tribe violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act by distributing $2,000 from its net gaming revenues to each of its 10,213 enrolled members before getting approval from the Interior Department.

The tribal council had approved a one-time economic stimulus payment to all enrolled members during the harsh months of the economic meltdown last year “to provide for the general welfare of our tribal members and to promote our tribal economic development,” the nation’s leaders said.

The nation had submitted the approval application in early December, but the process was delayed in part because of the usual bureaucratic disruptions around holidays, such as people who needed to sign off on the document being on vacation.

The distribution of funds was approved Feb. 23 by George Skibine, the Interior’s deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs.

It’s not clear why Hogen waited almost six months after the Feb. 23 approval of the distribution of funds to issue the notice of violation, or why he issued it at all since the distribution was approved.

In an ironic twist, after approving the Yakama distribution last February, Skibine became the acting chair of NIGC a day after Hogen’s retirement Oct. 2. President Barack Obama appointed Skibine to fill the position until a permanent chair can be found. The appointment came in the midst of the NIGC-Yakama negotiations.

But it didn’t take long for Skibine to settle the dispute.

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The nation appealed Hogen’s notice of violation Oct. 1. Four days later, NIGC asked Interior to assign a presiding official to conduct a hearing.

One month later, attorneys for Skibine and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation filed a joint motion and stipulated order to certify the settlement agreement they had reached and dismiss the appeal and hearing.

The settlement agreement notes that the Yakama asserted that nothing in the agreement “may be interpreted as either (1) an admission of liability or wrongdoing on the part of the Nation, or (2) a waiver of any of the Nation’s procedural or administrative rights. Nor does the Nation hereby waive, alter or otherwise diminish any rights, privileges, remedies or services guaranteed by the Treaty with the Yakima of 1855.” (The agreement uses this alternate spelling of the nation’s name).

The document also notes that Skibine agrees that by signing the settlement NIGC waives the right to impose any additional civil fine or issue another notice of violation, unless the nation failed to comply with the agreement.

The nation complied by issuing a check for a $5,000 fine Nov. 2.

In October, the Yakama tribal government again began making per capita distributions equivalent to 40 percent of Yakama’s net gaming revenue for fiscal year 2009 – 2010.

“Direct payments of net gaming revenue are now being paid into the homes of our tribal families, where help is needed the most,” Sampson said.

The nation’s Legends Casino provides jobs to the Yakama Nation and to the greater Toppenish, Wash., community where it is located.

“The Yakama Nation will do whatever it can to help its citizens and the local economy weather these tough economic times. The nation’s first gaming per capita distributions this fall are one aspect of the nation’s economic recovery plan,” Sampson.

Skibine could not be reached for comment by press time, but observers of the Indian country gaming scene, particularly those who were critical of Hogen’s management style and of his letter of the law violation against the Yakama, had a positive view of Skibine’s swift action and handling of the issue.

“It gives some hope for an improved attitude at the commission,” said an Indian law attorney who asked not to be named.

“I still think the notice of violation should never have been issued in the first place and there shouldn’t have been a $5,000 fine. That money just goes into the federal treasury, and think how many dialysis treatments it could have bought for tribal members.”