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New Charges to Be Filed Over Indian Bingo Games

Times Staff Writer

Additional criminal complaints of grand theft will be filed today by the state attorney general’s office in connection with allegedly fixed--and now defunct--bingo games at the Barona Indian Reservation near Lakeside, The Times has learned.

The target of today’s filing will be Joseph Catania, who allegedly taught several people how they should act out their roles as plants in winning nearly $140,000 in rigged bingo games, according to a source close to the investigation.

Catania was described in recent grand jury testimony as an accomplice of Stewart Siegel, a former general manager of the Barona bingo games, according to transcripts of those hearings. Siegel pleaded guilty April 2 to pre-determining winners of high-stakes bingo games by fixing the games so his accomplices would win, then sharing a percentage of the winnings with his shills.

The accomplices testified to the grand jury that they met with Catania at a motel room before the bingo games and learned from him how to mark their bingo cards so they could help him divert tens of thousands of dollars in prize money from legitimate bingo players.

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In addition to pressing felony charges against Catania, the attorney general’s office will also file felony charges against Louis Cordileone, accusing him of coercing a witness of the rigged games into perjuring herself before the grand jury. The witness initially denied knowledge of the crooked games, then recanted her testimony and accused Cordileone, an acquaintance of Siegel’s and a Los Angeles-area businessman, of telling her to falsify her earlier testimony, according to transcripts of the grand jury investigation.

Siegel was indicted March 26 on six counts of felony grand theft for fixing six individual bingo games with a total prize award of $139,000. He pleaded guilty to four of the six counts, and will be sentenced July 2.

Witnesses testified that twice, when expensive cars were given away as promotional door prizes, Siegel had earlier slipped them the winning keys to open the door. The “winners” took cash instead of the cars.

In four other instances, witnesses testified, Siegel fixed “Big Eight” games, in which a legitimate player is to mark eight numbers on a blank bingo card and its carbon copy, and deposit the original into a locked box, with the hope that his eight numbers will be among the first 20 announced by the bingo caller.

The jackpots in those games increased nightly until there was a winner, and totaled as much as $34,000 in the fixed games.

The shills testified that they were told by Catania to write down the numbers on their blank carbon copy as the numbers were being called, and Siegel--elsewhere in the bingo hall--filled out the companion card in the same manner. In the confusion following the shills shouting “Bingo!” Siegel planted the fixed card with the honestly played ones in the lockbox so it could be fraudulently retrieved and confirmed as an authentic victory.

The high-stakes, unregulated bingo games were shut down last month in the wake of controversy surrounding their legitimacy, cash flow problems and a change of ownership of the management company operating the games.

Members of the Barona tribe--which in 1983 became the first in California to offer the free-wheeling bingo games--voted last week to halt them indefinitely and to no longer recognize the tribe’s contract with American Management and Amusement Co., which was hired in 1981 to develop and run the games. The tribe’s attorney accused the company of changing ownership without first notifying and getting the approval of the tribal council, as is required in their management contract.

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The Indian bingo games had long been criticized by law enforcement agencies as ripe with potential for skimming and fixed games and as a possible front for organized crime, but even the April 2 guilty plea by Siegel did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the hundreds of bingo players who nightly spent upwards of $25 each--and some, hundreds of dollars--in hope of winning big jackpots.

Many loyal bingo players professed even greater confidence in the games’ integrity after Siegel’s plea, saying that, with law enforcement focusing its attention on the games, they would be squeaky clean.

A greater concern to bingo management and the Indian tribe was competition from other Southern California Indian bingo games, including those operated on the Sycuan reservation east of El Cajon under the management of Pan American Resources Co., based in Tampa, Fla.

The Barona games were suspended three weeks ago when the tribal council said it wanted to investigate the background of the new owners. The management company also said it needed time to reorganize and to refurbish the bingo hall.

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Then, last week, tribal members voted 75 to 5, with 10 abstentions, to sever their relationship with American Management and Amusement. Art Bunce, the tribal council’s attorney, said tribal leaders were upset by “the manner in which AMA attempted to allow others to buy into it without first consulting the tribe. The transfer (of ownership) was accomplished before the tribe was even informed,” despite contract provisions prohibiting that.

He said four of the five principal owners of Pan American, which operates the Sycuan bingo games, purchased a 50% ownership of American Management and Amusement.

A lesser but relevant concern was that the new owners of AMA had “unfortunate management experiences” running Indian bingo operations in Arizona and Minnesota. A court-settled contract dispute forced Pan American out of managing bingo games operated by the Shakotee Sioux near Minneapolis, while Pascua Yaqui tribal members near Tucson literally surrounded the bingo hall and forced the management company to pack up and leave, Bunce said.

He said the Barona tribe will seek formal court action within weeks to have the management contract with AMA declared null and void. That 25-year pact called for AMA to receive 45% of the bingo games’ net profits in exchange for operating the games, and the Indians to receive 55%.

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Many Barona Indians have long opposed the local games, saying the operation brought in virtually none of the windfall profits that were projected three years ago, feeding speculation that the games were poorly managed or money was being skimmed.

Susan Osuna, the tribe’s business manager, said the closing of bingo was “frustrating for a lot of people because they’re out of jobs. Tribal enterprise has gone down the tubes.”

About 50 Indians were employed by AMA to help run the games.

Osuna and Bunce said that after the contract with AMA is legally voided, the tribe will decide whether to pursue bingo once again. A $3.3-million bingo hall was constructed on reservation land at AMA’s expense--but with the proviso that gross profits from the games be used to repay the building loan. Bunce said the Indians retain ownership of the building, but that the repayment out of bingo profits has caused cash flow problems for AMA.

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Ed Drasin, a Los Angeles businessman who has been identified as the executive officer of AMA, refused comment Wednesday about whether his company will contest the contract dispute.

Executives with Pan American failed to return a reporter’s phone calls.

The Barona decision leaves Sycuan as the only Indian reservation in San Diego County offering high-stakes bingo. The Rincon Indian reservation bingo games northeast of Escondido were halted last year because of cash flow problems, and have yet to reopen despite promises of doing so under new management.

Reservation bingo legally can offer higher stakes than more traditional church and civic organization bingo games because Indians are not regulated by state laws that put a $250 ceiling on bingo jackpots.

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