(This looks like a reflection of the Freedmen Case, someone retaliating here?)
Actions on Indian gambling termed dishonest
By JIM MYERS World Washington Bureau
Last Modified: 8/10/2008 2:50 AM
WASHINGTON — Just weeks after dropping a controversial Indian gambling proposal, a key federal agency is being accused of using a dishonest backdoor approach that could cost Oklahoma and its tribes $1 billion and thousands of jobs.
Moreover, the new effort to address what constitutes a Class II game was triggered by a small Alaska tribe whose leader claims not to know who is paying for its request to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
That mysterious factor, the commission's linking the Metlakatla Indian Community's rejected request for authorization of "one-touch" electronic bingo machines to its move to set aside the proposed regulations, and the speed with which the tribe's request was handled have led to the allegations.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, in unusually harsh comments, said the commission is trying to impose the same policies it dropped earlier by administrative fiat.
"In my opinion this entire process is a serious breach of trust by the government and demonstrates disregard for the rights of Native Americans,'' the Oklahoma Republican said, accusing the agency of a deliberate and duplicitous misuse of power.
"I intend to do everything possible to prevent the NIGC from implementing backdoor regulatory actions and force them to deal with tribes in a manner that is open, honest and above board.''
As a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, Cole is believed to be the only enrolled member of a tribe in Congress today, and he serves on a House committee that handles Indian issues. (emphasis added)
NIGC Chairman Philip Hogen disputes that he is planning an end run around the more arduous regulatory process and expressed disappointment that Cole did not reach out to the commission before going public with his accusations.
"There is no conspiracy here,'' Hogen said.
He points to his announcement in June that his agency was putting aside the more contentious elements of the draft regulations on gambling, the inclusion of the Metlakatla development in that same press release and his own efforts to reach out even to the press as proof he was not trying to hide anything.
"So, I chose to tell them then and there,'' Hogen said of his June announcement at an event in Oklahoma City.
"It would have been very disingenuous of me to go back to Washington and say, 'let's slip out the backdoor sort of speak with this' No, there is no inappropriate backdoor intent or action in connection with this.''
'Bright line': Cole and Hogen's exchange is part of just the latest chapter in the long-running controversy involving the effort to draw a "bright line'' between Class II gambling devices such as bingo, regulated by tribes, and Class III machines such as slots, operated under state compacts.
Hogen believes it is time for not only the commission but the courts as well to address the technological changes in bingo machines.
"The games the courts considered took 2 1/2 minutes to play and took 12 people to play,'' he said.
"The ones that you see on the floors out in Oklahoma today can be played in just seconds, and two people can play it. It is a whole different ball game, and it is time the courts looked at that.''
In his June announcement in Oklahoma City, Hogen made it clear a lawsuit in the Metlakatla case, which is being appealed to the full commission, could help get to the long-sought clarity, "sooner, rather than later.''
His announcement came just days after the Metlakatla request was received, and some have expressed concern the link between that request and the decision to set aside the proposed regulations goes far beyond a press release.
"I think it is very premeditated,'' said David Qualls, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, whose 27 tribes all have Class II gambling.
'Very scary slope': Oklahoma tribes reportedly have at least 25,000 Class II devices and conduct more than half of the Class II Indian gambling in the nation.
That is why the economic impact of Hogen's efforts could be so significant in the state.
"This is a very scary slope for the Oklahoma tribes,'' said Qualls, whose concerns range from being left out of the current process on the Metlakatla request to the advantage the commission could have if the issue ends up in a federal court.
He also questioned who is behind the Metlakatla request and suggested it may be a game manufacturer who could benefit economically.
Mayor Karl Cook of the 2,000-member Metlakatla Indian Community expressed doubt that his tribe's request was being funded by a manufacturer but conceded he did not know for sure who is backing it.
Cook, who does not support gambling but believes it is his responsibility as leader of the tribe to make sure its gambling operations with 70 Class II devices run at a profit, did not take a position on the controversial draft regulations put aside by the commission in June.
He agrees that now is the best time for a decision on what exactly is Class II gambling because it is still a manageable issue.
'Trying to achieve clarity': Hogen, who is scheduled to be in Oklahoma City again this week for an Indian gambling event, said he viewed the Metlakatla request to amend its ordinance as a serious proposal submitted by an experienced and respected tribal government.
When asked whether it would make a difference if he knew that a gambling device manufacturer was behind the tribe's request, Hogen said he might "think of that.''
He then said as chairman he should not discuss the matter further.
"The matter is under appeal. Some of the details would be inappropriate to talk about,'' Hogen said.
On whether he encouraged the tribe to submit its proposal, he said over the years, discussions were held that maybe somebody could pursue a lawsuit to get to judicial clarity.
He said he did not go out begging for someone to take such action, but Hogen admitted he would be pleased if the Metlakatla request led to a court decision.
Oklahoma tribes and the commission, he said, want Indian gambling to be conducted legally under the law.
"We disagree about some aspects of that. I am trying to achieve clarity,'' Hogen said, adding that if he is correct, tribes have made inappropriate investments on games.
"That is regrettable. I am sorry that money couldn't have been used to buy dialysis machines and pay for scholarships.''