Responding to concerns about oversight of Indian casinos, the California attorney general’s office is taking a more aggressive approach in reviewing the backgrounds of tribal gambling regulators.
The attorney general’s Division of Gambling Control will now verify that tribes are conducting thorough background checks on gaming commissioners and are issuing formal findings on their “suitability” to serve as regulators.
Before, state agents did not go beyond confirming that tribes had procedures in place to perform background checks.
One of the first tribes for which state agents will enforce the new requirements is the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians in Santa Barbara County. The band operates the Chumash Casino, one of the most profitable in California.
“We have already been in contact with the Chumash, and they have told us they are going to be cooperative,” said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.
Barankin said state agents are paying special attention to the Chumash Casino because a Times report last month raised “serious concerns” about tribal oversight of the operation.
The Times disclosed that at least seven current and former members of the Chumash gaming commission have criminal records and other problems that would disqualify them from working at casinos in Nevada and other states.
Some former Chumash commissioners have been convicted of robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and other felonies. One commissioner resigned in July after a Times reporter asked about his extensive criminal record.
Gilbert Cash, chairman of the gaming commission, is awaiting trial on felony charges of beating and choking his estranged wife. He denies the allegations.
Cash, 38, a Santa Barbara firefighter, has twice filed for personal bankruptcy in the past two years. Like each of the tribe’s 153 members, he receives nearly $30,000 a month in casino revenue.
The Chumash Casino Resort collects about $200 million in annual revenue. Like many tribes in California, the Chumash elect tribal members to serve on their gaming commission.
The attorney general’s office is the second government agency to examine the Chumash gambling operation. Last month, the National Indian Gaming Commission began an inquiry into the makeup of the Chumash commission.
The gaming commission’s chairman, Philip Hogen, said Monday that talks with the tribe are continuing and “presumably will come to a successful conclusion in the not-too-distant future.”
State officials adopted their new policy after learning from a Times article that the commission lacks legal authority to enforce minimum background standards for tribal gaming commissioners.
“Our understanding has always been that the NIGC had the authority to scrutinize tribal gaming agency member backgrounds, and that it chose to exercise that authority,” Barankin said. “That belief was inaccurate.”
For several years, state agents conducted inspections to confirm that tribes had procedures for conducting background checks. But agents “did not actually verify or evaluate the background checks themselves,” Barankin said.
Effective immediately, state agents conducting quarterly site visits at Indian casinos will examine the background investigations and will confirm that the tribe has made a suitability finding for all gaming commission members.
“The division is committed to using its authority under the compacts to protect the integrity of tribal gaming in California,” said Bob Lytle, director of the Division of Gambling Control.
Leaders of the Santa Ynez band declined to comment.
In earlier interviews, they said the tribe had no formal policy on the backgrounds of gaming commissioners. Nor does the band issue official findings of suitability.
Cash said in July that the tribe had been debating for several years about what to do with the background information it compiled on gaming commissioners.
“We don’t want to send it to just anybody,” Cash said. “Do we send it to the state? The NIGC?.... We’re still in discussion about that.”