WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials said Wednesday that they will not vigorously pursue cases of alleged illegal gambling on Indian reservations, despite prodding from Congress, until the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is clarified.
At a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) sharply criticized what he said was the department's failure to pursue illegal gaming operations--some of which are believed to involve organized crime--saying that existing statutes already empower the department to act.
In response, Paul Maloney, deputy assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, defended the department's enforcement record. He said nine indictments have been obtained recently in Indian gambling cases, some of which involve underworld connections.
The regulatory act, which has been criticized by federal agencies for its vagueness, grants Indian tribes broad powers to operate gambling activities, provided that such activities are legal under state and local laws, or that special contracts have been negotiated with state authorities.
But varied interpretations of the act by federal agencies and courts have resulted in confusion over enforcement, experts said.
New guidelines to be published in the next few months are expected to clarify the technical distinctions that largely determine a gaming activity's legality. Some states have complained that the regulatory act requires them to negotiate with tribes and ultimately to permit gambling on reservations because of an Indian nation's sovereignty. States that generally prohibit gambling are being forced to sanction it, some critics say.
Several tribal leaders and state gaming officials urged the committee to clarify the role of federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which reviews tribal petitions for gaming licenses.
They also asked that the embryonic National Indian Gaming Commission be given more power to help tribal and federal authorities reach agreements after new regulations are in place. Prolonged squabbling over jurisdiction, they said, has hampered their ability to attract reputable backers to struggling Indian gaming operations.
Annual revenues nationwide from the Indian gaming industry are estimated at $700 million to $1.8 billion.
The larger operations are located in Western states, such as California and Arizona.