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California and the West

U.S. Endorses State Deal on Indian Casino

April 26, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The U.S. Department of the Interior on Saturday endorsed the first state-sanctioned Indian casino in California--approving a pact that most of the other gambling tribes oppose.

The four-page endorsement, signed by Kevin Gover, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs under Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, gave the federal imprimatur to a controversial compact between Gov. Pete Wilson and the Pala Band of Mission Indians, allowing the San Diego County tribe to open a reservation casino.

Federal approval was essential for the project to move ahead and potentially provide a legal model for dozens of other Indian gambling operations around California.

But the agreement includes conditions that worry other tribes, which for years have been operating casinos without state approval. These tribes complain that the Pala pact is overly restrictive, infringes on Indian sovereignty and--if imposed throughout California--would probably reduce profits at casinos built around hundreds of video poker and slot machines.

Among the hotly contested sections of the Pala agreement is one that limits the number of machines each tribe can operate. In addition, the opposing Indians object to how the Pala plan would do away with Las Vegas-style video slots, which now provide the lion's share of their casino revenues.

Under the Pala model, those devices would be replaced by new video machines that play high-tech--and near instantaneous--versions of the California lottery. Tribal leaders worry that those games will not be as popular.

More than 30 other tribes in California operate casinos, in open defiance of the governor.

Two went to federal court Friday but failed to convince a U.S. District judge in Washington, D.C., to block the Interior Department from signing the Pala accord. In going ahead with the endorsement, the Interior Department rejected arguments that the compact was illegal.

Tribes opposing it vow to continue their fight in court while pursuing a referendum for the November ballot that would legalize the kind of gambling they now offer--without the approval of the governor or Washington.

"The proposed Pala compact is fundamentally wrong," said Daniel Tucker, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Assn. "Clearly we are greatly disappointed and angry."

But representatives of the Pala band and several other tribes lauded the federal action as allowing for the orderly, legal and profitable operation of gambling on reservations.

"This will serve as a model for all gaming tribes in the state," said Howard Dickstein, a Sacramento attorney who represents Pala and other tribes. "It transcends the approval of one compact."

Though tribes in California can operate bingo halls and poker parlors without outside approval, under federal law they can only open high-stakes casinos if approved in compacts negotiated with the state.

Now that the governor and Pala have defined what is considered legal, federal prosecutors say they are poised to shut down gambling houses of tribes that have not begun compact negotiations.

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