Tribes Face Deadline on Slot-Like Games


While California Indian tribes pursued litigation Wednesday to preserve their embattled gambling casinos, they also braced for a May 13 deadline to agree to play by the state’s rules or face federal enforcement.

Just how swiftly and aggressively the U.S. Department of Justice would move against tribal leaders is unknown. But federal authorities have promised to take action against any of the nearly 40 Indian casinos that fail by the deadline to change practices that the state deems unlawful.

Whether the showdown will lead to potentially confrontational raids remains to be seen.

But tribal leaders recall what happened in Arizona in 1992 when, in a somewhat similar situation, Indians blockaded their own unsanctioned casino for eight hours--with raiding FBI agents caught inside. Then-Arizona Gov. Fife Symington ordered a cooling-off period, and eventually--after a mediator intervened--Arizona and eight tribes signed agreements, called compacts, to allow casinos but limit the number of gambling machines on each reservation based on the tribe’s size.


Gov. Pete Wilson has signed a federally endorsed compact allowing the Pala Indian tribe in northern San Diego County to open a casino, but most of California’s gambling tribes oppose its terms as too restrictive.

They also argue in state and federal lawsuits that Wilson lacks the authority to unilaterally sign the compact without the Legislature’s ratification. A U.S. District Court judge in Washington last Friday declined to intervene, and the tribes--joined by five state lawmakers--renewed their argument Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court. A further hearing in that court was set for May 8.

Wilson, meanwhile, is seeking legislative ratification of the compact, and a state Senate bill to ratify the compact may be debated on the floor today.

Wilson has told the other gaming tribes that they have until May 13 to adopt the Pala compact or unplug their contested machines and open their own compact negotiations with him. Federal authorities have adopted the same deadline.

The more than 30 tribes opposing the Pala compact don’t want to shut their lucrative machines as a prerequisite to opening talks with Wilson. State officials say that many of the Indian gambling devices are illegal because they have characteristics of Nevada-style slot machines, which are banned in California.

Federal law requires governors to negotiate casino operations in good faith, and the tribes say that Wilson’s preconditions show that he is being unduly obstinate.


Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Indians in Palm Springs, echoes the sentiments of other tribal leaders in the state:

“Our machines have not been determined to be illegal so we shouldn’t have to shut them down. They’re simply unsanctioned because the governor refuses to negotiate a compact with us. We’re in a Catch-22. We can’t win.”

Dan Kolkey, Wilson’s legal affairs advisor, disagrees.

“Frankly, if [Milanovich] feels his operations are currently legal, then he has no reason to fear enforcement action,” he said.

If the Indians were not first required to turn off their machines, Kolkey said, the state would have little leverage with the tribes to reach a compact. The Indians, he said, would prolong the negotiations as long as possible.

Both sides of the debate cite the federal blessing of the Pala compact as a reason for feeling emboldened in pressing their points.

Kevin Gover, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, has warned that the conditions of the Pala compact that he approved Saturday--including provisions that limit the number of gambling machines both at Pala and statewide--”are not and cannot be binding on other tribes” that are not parties to the agreement.

Indian tribal leaders interpreted Gover’s comment as endorsing their belief that Wilson was predisposed to restrict their operations even before he negotiates compacts with them.

Gover said Wednesday that after he made it clear to Wilson that a statewide cap on gambling machines could not be imposed on all the tribes by virtue of a single Pala compact, he had no problem blessing the agreement between Wilson and Pala, after minor technical changes.

Gover said he had no opinion on Wilson’s insistence that the other tribes first unplug their slot-like machines before he negotiates with them.

“That’s a legal call, in some respects: Is it appropriate, is it good faith, to establish that precondition?” Gover said. “I’ve not asked my lawyers to look at it, and that could be an issue that a court ultimately will address.”

If nowhere else, the Indians hope to eventually win the battle at the ballot box, having submitted this week more than 1 million signatures to qualify an initiative for the November election to rewrite the state statute that bans the kinds of gambling they want.

That petition drive was remarkable for gathering so many signatures so quickly--in about a month--and also remarkable for its cost. By some estimates, the tribes spent $10 million to pay for direct mail, television commercials and signature gatherers--who were paid up to $1.50 per name. A spokeswoman for the 43 tribes behind the effort would not say how much was spent on the drive, saying only that the economic future of the tribes justified the cost.

If the measure qualifies for the November ballot, it is sure to face legal challenge, observers say, because the state Constitution--which bans the kinds of devices sought by the Indians--takes precedence over the state statute that the initiative addresses.

More pressing now is Wilson’s deadline for casino compliance. “The Indians have until May 13 to chose their options, or we’ll take action,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Christine DiBartolo. “We’re very serious, and we’re committed to moving expeditiously.”

Federal action against the tribes would not come immediately on May 13 because the enforcement plan first would have to win court blessing, legal authorities say.

Among the options: a court injunction ordering the machines to be shut off, the outright seizure of the machines or seizure of other tribal assets, lawyers said. But which tactic is planned remains undisclosed.