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Indians Denounce Gambling Accord

Casinos: Leaders of 11 tribes say pact between Gov. Wilson and another band will impose unacceptable limits on the types of games they can offer.

March 10, 1998|TOM GORMAN and MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PALM SPRINGS — Leaders of 11 Southern California Indian tribes on Monday angrily denounced an agreement by Gov. Pete Wilson to allow a small San Diego County tribe to operate a gambling casino, saying it undercuts their own gambling enterprises and insults their sovereignty.

Mocking Friday's announced pact between Wilson and the Pala band of Mission Indians, the chairman of the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians said the agreement wasn't a historic, ground-breaking accord between the state and California's Indians, but rather "a historic gravedigging."

The problem, said Richard Milanovich, was that while the pact paves the way for a small, non-gambling Indian tribe to get into the business, it unilaterally imposes unacceptable conditions upon those tribes that have long been involved in gambling, albeit without the governor's blessing.

"I woke up last Friday morning living in America, and when I went to bed, I was living in the USSR," said Milanovich, who hosted the meeting of tribal officers from Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties.

For years, tribes have offered slot-type machines similar to those in Nevada, in which gamblers play against the house, winning sometimes lucrative payouts by the casino.

The compact with the Pala band allows tribes to offer gambling on electronic playing devices--now in experimental development--that pay winners from a players' pool similar to a lottery. The machines thus skirt state law that in general bans casino wagering against the house and specifically bans gambling on regular slot machines.

Tribal leaders fear it will lead to smaller payoffs, thereby becoming less attractive to gamblers who may turn to Nevada for more traditional gambling.

"Pete Wilson is the best governor that Nevada ever had," said Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechango tribal council in Temecula.

Among them, the 11 protesting tribes operate more than 7,000 video slot machines, much to Wilson's ongoing consternation. Federal prosecutors have not aggressively pushed to close the casinos, saying they would wait until Wilson and one of the tribes signed an agreement, then allow the others to fall in line.

The other tribes, Wilson said, have 60 days to get rid of, or pledge to get rid of, their slot machines.

Most frustrating to the other tribal leaders, Milanovich said, was Wilson's position that the so-called compact--an agreement between the state and the Indian nation--would serve as a model for the 104 tribes in California that offer gambling on reservation casinos, or may want to offer it in the future.

"The Pala band did what it had to do" in agreeing to terms with the governor that will allow it to open its own casino, Milanovich said.

But the three dozen or so tribes in California that already offer casino action--and who reap tens of millions of dollars in profits--"can't live with the agreement that was imposed upon Pala," Milanovich said. "We need to negotiate our own agreements. How nice this is for Nevada."

The terms of the pact do include a provision for tribes to negotiate their own pacts--but only if they agree in advance to dispose of their slot machines and replace them with the new devices.

The agreement also places a ceiling on the number of machines that any one casino can operate. A tribe that wants more can buy the rights to machines allocated to another tribe that does not want them.

Even that provision upset tribal leaders meeting here. "That's a redistribution of wealth," said Macarro, "and that's hardly a Republican principle."

Wilson on Friday, and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren on Monday, praised the agreement with Pala, saying it would finally bring the years-long battle to a close over what kind of gambling could occur on Indian reservations in California.

Federal law says that Indians can offer only the forms of gambling that are legal in the state--such as, in California, poker, horse race betting and the lottery. Even then, the governor and the tribes must sign a pact.

Lungren, a candidate for governor, used conciliatory terms Monday, unlike his tough tone in the past calling for federal action to shut down the Indian casino slots.

In a complaint he filed in federal court in 1996, Lungren declared that "[tribal casino] video slot machines are being operated in flagrant violation of both federal and state law, and the state's hands are tied." He called on federal authorities to force the tribes to cease the slot action.

But Monday, as he appeared before reporters with tribal leaders who agree with the compact at his side, Lungren said:

"I invite all tribes who wish to offer lottery-style gaming to join this model compact and collaborate with my office to ensure legitimate gaming operations. . . . It is our hope that we bring as many tribes and bands into this as possible. . . ."

Uncertain Monday was what action the protesting tribes would take. Tribal leaders would not say whether they would fight the compact in court, launch a state ballot initiative campaign or simply refuse to abide by the model agreement.

Gorman reported from Palm Springs and Vanzi from Sacramento.

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