The former manager of bingo operations on the Barona Indian Reservation in Lakeside pleaded guilty Wednesday in Superior Court to four counts of felony grand theft for fixing bingo games.
Under a plea agreement struck with the state attorney general’s office minutes before he was arraigned, Stewart Siegel of Las Vegas agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with authorities in their continuing investigation of the Barona bingo operations.
“This is just the beginning,” Siegel predicted after his arraignment. “There will probably be tribal members and members of the management company who are indicted. I am working with the attorney general’s office on this investigation.”
Siegel, 48, had been indicted by a San Diego County Grand Jury March 26 on six counts of felony grand theft of $139,000 in illegal winnings. Five alleged accomplices in the thefts testified before the grand jury under a grant of immunity, Deputy Atty. Gen. Gary Schons said.
The indictment was unsealed Wednesday and Siegel immediately surrendered. He was released on his own recognizance and prosecutors agreed to drop two theft counts when he is sentenced July 2.
Siegel, described by authorities as a Las Vegas casino consultant, ran the games on the Barona reservation for American Amusement and Management Co., a Los Angeles firm hired by the tribe. Siegel left the company in September after the tribe accused him of mismanaging profits from the games.
He acknowledged Wednesday that he rigged the high-stakes bingo games by “arranging for a person working with me to win a cash prize drawing, rather than a lucky player selected randomly.”
The indictment alleges that Siegel rigged six high-stakes games between January and August, 1985, that involved jackpots of $15,000 to $34,000. He planted hand-picked players, or “shills,” in the audience and split the winnings with them, said Schons.
“The high-payoff games were all rigged,” Schons said. “Winners were determined not by the luck of the draw but by Siegel. Innocent bingo players did not have a chance.”
The management company and tribal officials were not charged with any wrongdoing, but the state is still investigating “activities” in the bingo operation that might result in indictments against some tribal and management officials, Schons said.
Lt. John Tenwolde of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said the department is continuing its investigation of the games.
“There are allegations and evidence of violation of other state laws,” he said, but he declined to elaborate.
American Amusement and Management Co. officials declined to comment Wednesday.
Susan Osuna, the tribe’s business administrator, said that members of the tribal council would not comment until they have consulted attorneys.
“They are not up to giving a statement right now,” Osuna said. “But I have talked to most of them and they are at a loss as to what Mr. Siegel meant when he said that others would be indicted.”
High-stakes bingo on the reservation, drawing as many as 700 people a night, will continue despite the investigation, said Fred Warner, the current Barona bingo manager.
The games take in between $850,000 and $1 million a month, but nearly as much may be given out in prize money each month, Warner said.
In 1983, the Barona tribe become one of the first in California to offer high-stakes unrestricted bingo, with some cash prizes totaling nearly $40,000.
The 25-year contract between the tribe and the management company provides for 55% of the net profits to go to the tribe, and the rest to American Amusement.
But some Indians have long complained that the tribe has not received its full returns. About $500,000 from the games has been turned over to the tribe.
Catherine Holsbo, a Barona Indian tribe member opposed to bingo on the reservation, said she was “very supportive” of Siegel’s cooperation with the investigation.
“What he did today (at the arraignment) was very helpful to our cause,” Holsbo said. “He has the information and the proof to clean up Barona.
“The whole bingo issue has split the tribe and brought a violence to the reservation that’s been frightening. We don’t care if bingo is eliminated because the whole point was to bring profits to the tribe and we haven’t received that much anyway.”
Reservation bingo has also been criticized by San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy, who has expressed concern about Indian bingo being a front for organized crime. Because the Indian games are under federal jurisdiction, they are not subject to the same auditing requirements and jackpot limits imposed on charitable organizations.
During an appearance before a congressional subcommittee in San Diego in September, Duffy testified that his office had evidence of organized crime involvement on the Barona reservation. Duffy complained that his department has been unable to probe the charges because it did not have jurisdiction to conduct a raid of the bingo operations on the reservation.
Schons said Wednesday there was no evidence that organized crime was involved in the Barona operation.
Duffy was out of town Wednesday and was unavailable for comment on yesterday’s indictments. Tenwolde said bingo operations on Indian reservations should come under more scrutiny.
“There should be a commission that has the expertise to regulate high stakes bingo on reservations,” Tenwolde said. “Until then, laundering and skimming of money could continue.” The investigation into Barona bingo was jointly conducted by the Sheriff’s Department, the San Diego Police Department and the attorney general’s special prosecutions unit, which investigates organized crime.