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Congressional Panel to Hear Pros, Cons of Indian Bingo Games Today

Times Staff Writer

A congressional hearing on whether free-wheeling, high-stakes Indian bingo games should be subjected to government audits and federal or state regulations will be held today in San Diego.

The hearing, requested by U.S. Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the County Administration Center, 1600 Pacific Highway. About 20 people, including San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy and representatives of area Indian bands, have asked to speak to the panel.

Bates said he asked for the hearing so that concerns about bingo management on Indian reservations, including accusations that organized crime is involved in the gaming, can be aired.

“Given the history in this country of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the management of the reservations, there’s a tremendous potential for them being ripped off or being taken advantage of,” Bates said.

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The hearing will be chaired by Rep. Rick Lehman (D-Fresno), a member of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and which has before it two bills addressing the management of Indian reservation bingo.

Other congressmen scheduled to attend the hearing include George Miller (D-Pleasant Hill), Ron de Lugo (D-Virgin Islands) and Bob Lagomarsino (R-Ventura).

High-stakes bingo on Indian reservations sprang up around the country after a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 1981 that Seminoles in Florida could continue playing big-payoff bingo even though it was contrary to Florida laws. Since Florida did not ban bingo outright, the state could not regulate Indian bingo payoffs, the court said.

The promise of Indian employment, big profits and resulting financial windfalls for reservations led to the proliferation of bingo games on Indian reservations elsewhere; in April, 1983, the Barona Indians of eastern San Diego County were the first Indians to offer bingo in California.

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Today, about 80 of the 290 recognized American Indian tribal bands around the country--including the Rincon, Sycuan and Barona bands in San Diego County--have constructed large bingo halls and have lured thousands of players nightly with the promises of lucrative payoffs, sometimes upwards of $20,000.

But on some reservations, Indian riches failed to materialize. Some operators blamed competing bingo palaces for cutting into their attendance and cited what they considered exorbitant salaries they paid the Indians who worked the bingo games. Critics and skeptics, on the other hand, have complained of poor management and accounting procedures, and suggest that some of the games are controlled by criminal interests.

While the 2,400-seat bingo hall at Barona is often filled to capacity for nightly bingo, members of the reservation have complained that they have yet to see any evidence of the promised bingo profits.

At the Rincon reservation northeast of Escondido, bingo was suspended in June and the non-Indian operator of the games was fired last month after it was revealed that despite 18 months of operation, no money had been made by the reservation and the non-Indian investors and operator of the game had lost an estimated $200,000. Some bills and winners’ payoffs have still not been paid by the operator, tribal officers say.

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Previous attempts to put Indian bingo under state control have failed, largely because of the Reagan Administration’s philosophy that Indians should work for their own economic development, including ventures with outside interests, without government interference.

The two bills before the House committee, however, would put Indian bingo under government scrutiny.

HR 1920, sponsored by Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), who chairs the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, would require that Indian bingo operations be subjected to annual government audits, that the games be operated by Indians rather than non-Indian managers from off the reservation, and that all profits from the games be earmarked for tribal programs and operations. Indians would be allowed to hire an outside operator only with the approval of the interior secretary.

San Diego County’s Indian leaders say they support HR 1920 because it would bring credibility to the game and generate public trust in the operation.

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The other bill, HR 2404, sponsored by Rep. Norman Shumway (R-Stockton), would subject Indian bingo to the same state regulations governing non-Indian bingo. In California, for instance, non-Indian bingo games operated by churches and charities are limited to $250 payoffs; under Shumway’s legislation, Indian bingo would be limited to the same stakes.

Art Bunce, an attorney who represents the Barona band, said Indians support Udall’s bill because “there is a lot of controversy concerning the games, and some sort of regulation is inevitable. The tribes would prefer the kind of regulation in the Udall bill because it will assist them in policing their games and putting them on firm footing, for the sake of the reservation economy in the future.”

He noted that a nationwide Indian task force on gaming helped draft the Udall measure.

“Some regulation is desirable, to assure the public that adequate controls are in place. We want the public to be confident that the games are honest and the profits are going where they ought to,” Bunce said.

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Richard Sola, an attorney and spokesman for the Rincon band, called Udall’s bill “a reasonable framework in which to operate bingo. Our experience at Rincon does not indicate that reservation bingo should be shut down, but instead that those guidelines are necessary.”

He characterized Shumway’s bill as overregulation.

Jim Trant, business manager for the Sycuan band in East County, said that reservation also favors the Udall measure. “We welcome the Interior Department’s oversight and the kinds of services they can offer us,” he said.

Sheriff Duffy said Thursday that he would rather see all bingo games banned throughout the state than allow the Indians to continue to offer it unchecked by government.

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Short of that, Duffy said, he supports Shumway’s bill, which would subject Indians to the same bingo regulations that charities and churches off the reservation must meet.

“Indians should play by the same rules as the Elks Clubs and the Catholic Church,” said Duffy, who in 1982 threatened to raid planned bingo games at Barona--until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Indian bingo rules were civil, not criminal, matters.

“Our interest is the potential of organized crime’s involvement in bingo, because of its cash flow,” Duffy said. “Indian bingo is illegal gambling using a loophole in the law to flourish large cash operations which have the potential for organized crime, skimming and money laundering. The whole thing just smells; there’s so much potential for all kinds of corruption.”

Today’s hearing, the only one being conducted by the House committee, is expected to last into the afternoon.

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