The San Diego Union-Tribune reported recently about a curious case involving four California Indian gambling interests and how they obtained federal approval for a major and lucrative expansion of their operations. The paper described the incident a "major embarrassment" for the U.S. Department of the Interior and a "potential scandal unfolding from within."
Four tribes had been pushing legislation in the California state legislature to ratify a major expansion of their gaming operations. Specifically, they are hoping to gain approval to increase dramatically the number of slot machines at their casinos, constituting "one of the largest gambling expansions in state history," according to The Union-Tribune. It would also make the casinos some of the largest in the country, and the tribes would be looking at huge future profits. A group of gambling opponents, No on the Unfair Gambling Deals, filed an initiative that is forcing a February 5th statewide vote that if passes will nullify legislation that ratified the agreements. In September, despite the pending referendum, California’s secretary of state, saying that state law requires it, sent the agreements via Federal Express to the Interior Department for approval.
And this is where it gets really interesting.
The secretary sent the package to the wrong office at the department, but an employee at Interior remembers receiving the package and hand delivering it to the correct office, that of Carl Artman, assistant secretary for Indian affairs. But no one in Artman’s office remembers or is willing to say they remember receiving the FedEx package. And then, 80 days after the package was received by Interior, it turns up in the in-box of George Skibine, head of the bureau’s Indian gaming management branch and the person who reviews tribal gambling agreements.
Federal law gives the department 45 days to act on such agreements. If no action is taken over that period they are approved. In early December, the department approved the compacts because of the passed deadline. Skibine said he saw a problem and hoped the department could delay action allowing further review. He was overruled by his superiors, but he won’t say who gave him the directive.
If No on the Unfair Gambling Deals succeeds in passing their referendum on February 5th the agreements will be blocked. But Interior’s approval likely opens the door to legal action. "If voters reject the compacts, the legal weight of the premature federal approval would become the subject of a long legal fight, several attorneys predicted," the The Union-Leader reported.
A spokesperson for the No on the Unfair Gambling Deals termed the Interior Department’s story "unbelievable," they press on with "the highly controversial deals that sit unseen for six weeks and then miraculously appear in an official’s inbox too late for review." You would think officials at the Department of Interior would show more care regarding such matters in light of the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal and the conviction of J. Steven Griles, Interior’s former deputy secretary, for obstruction of justice in conjunction with the Abramoff mega-scandal. The four tribes, Aqua Caliente, Morongo, Pechanga and Sycuan, have diligently built good contacts in Washington through generous campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. According to Center for Responsive Politics compiled data, the tribes have consistently been among the top contributors to federal candidates and parties by casino and gaming interests, contributing collectively almost $3.8 million over the past decade. As our friend Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington was quoted as saying, "I don’t think accidents like this happen."
Hat tip: Captain’s Quarters blog.