Chumash Casino to Get Review

Times Staff Writer

Federal authorities plan to raise concerns with the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians in Santa Barbara County about how the tribe regulates gambling at its casino, one of the most profitable in California.

Philip Hogen, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, said he was disappointed to learn from a Times report last week that tribal members responsible for regulating the Chumash Casino during the past decade had criminal histories and other problems.

Hogen said his agency would initiate talks with Chumash leaders regarding the makeup of the tribe’s five-member gaming agency as well as possible reforms.


The Times reported that at least seven current and former Chumash commissioners have backgrounds that almost certainly would disqualify them from working at, much less regulating, casinos in Nevada and New Jersey. Those include convictions for robbery, theft and assault with a deadly weapon.

The chairman of the Chumash gaming commission is awaiting trial on felony charges of beating and choking his estranged wife. Gilbert Cash, 38, denies the allegations.

Cash has filed for bankruptcy four times in the past decade -- most recently in June -- and receives nearly $30,000 a month in casino proceeds, as does each of the tribe’s 153 members.

“We don’t want to see people hired in a casino if they have huge credit problems,” said Hogen, a former U.S. attorney in South Dakota and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “The gaming regulators don’t handle the dollars, but they ought to be held to similar standards.”

Created by Congress in 1988, the National Indian Gaming Commission -- along with tribal regulators and state governments -- is charged with ensuring the integrity of about 350 Indian casinos nationwide. The agency conducts periodic inspections to ensure that Indian casinos comply with internal control standards.

Chumash gaming attorney Glenn Feldman said the tribe had not yet been contacted by the federal regulators. “The tribe will cooperate fully with the NIGC as it always does on regulatory matters,” he said.

Among the possible outcomes of the review are the tribe replacing members of its gaming commission and adopting procedures to more closely scrutinize the backgrounds of Chumash regulators.

Cash has said he would resign from the gaming commission if convicted of a felony. Cash’s lawyer said he is hopeful that the spousal abuse and false imprisonment charges would be reduced to misdemeanors.

The Chumash Casino, which has 2,000 slot machines and about $200 million in annual revenue, is one of the most profitable gambling enterprises in the state. Like many tribes in California, the Santa Ynez band elects its own members to watch over casino operations.

California gambling regulators say that under tribal-state compacts negotiated by former Gov. Gray Davis, they lack direct authority to force tribes to disclose the backgrounds of their gaming commissioners.

“The tribes are under no obligation to run that information by us,” said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s Division of Gambling Control.

But critics say state authorities have been reluctant to enforce provisions in the compacts, including language that requires tribes to check the backgrounds of gambling commissioners.

“If they wanted to get tougher, they could do it,” said Leo McCarthy, former Assembly speaker and lieutenant governor, who is an expert on gambling issues. “We’re seeing a pattern of state officials wringing their hands and saying they can’t do anything about this. Of course they can. All they need is the political will.”

Federal regulators say the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 does not require tribal commissioners to undergo background investigations or pass suitability standards. Legislation introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) would make it mandatory for tribes to conduct background checks of gambling regulators.

“If that would happen, then we would have the lever we need,” Hogen said.

Lacking such authority, the national gaming commission relies on persuasion. It has issued numerous bulletins urging tribal leaders to hold their gaming commissioners to the same standards as key casino employees, who must undergo background checks.