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A Game of Casino Hardball

Corruption charges fly in a tribal dispute over land use and lots of income. Voter-approved Proposition 1A helped inspire a gold rush.

November 05, 2002|Judy Pasternak and Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writers

IONE, Calif. — A wind-swept little graveyard sits atop a knoll on the Buena Vista rancheria, a quiet resting place in the Sierra foothills for an Indian clan that has neared extinction.

Yet this patch of land with its gnarled oaks and golden grass has been the focus of ferocious machinations on two coasts -- a fight cementing California's status as the hottest front in the nation's Indian casino wars.

Two years ago, the Buena Vista Miwoks, a band of six adults and six children, announced plans for a gaming hall on their 67-acre rancheria. Competition appeared in the form of a young mother, who claimed the rightful authority to negotiate on the tribe's behalf.

Casino developers and rival tribes jumped into the fray, and along with them came several top Washington operatives, including Scott W. Reed, who managed the 1996 presidential campaign of Bob Dole, and Roger Stone, who strategized for George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential recount in Florida. Bush administration officials also got involved, signaling their interest in the case to a high-level Interior Department executive, who was fired in the midst of an FBI inquiry into his role.

The battle for control of the Buena Vista showcases the turmoil spawned by California's Proposition 1A. Approved by voters in 2000, the measure granted a monopoly on casino gambling to the state's federally recognized tribes.

California is home to 108 tribes, one-fifth of the nation's total. An additional 54 have applied for federal recognition. Many are located within a few hours' driving distance of urban centers.

The race for market share is fierce. California has capped the number of slot machines at 52,000. Fifty-two casinos already are operating with more than 40,000 slots. Tribes that have begun gaming also worry about nearby rancherias siphoning off business as new casinos open.

Many of the tribes are tiny -- some with fewer than a dozen members. A tribe with one adult member -- the Augustines -- opened a casino in Coachella.

For insiders, that means few to share the spoils. For outsiders, "small tribes are easier to control," said Cheryl Schmitt, director of Stand Up for California, a gambling watchdog group.

The rewards can be substantial. Tribal casinos brought in $12 billion in revenue nationally last year. They donated nearly $4 million to national parties, and their candidates so far this election cycle and paid out $15.6 million for federal lobbying, according to Dwight L. Morris & Associates, a campaign-finance research company.

In California, campaign donations by tribes to state candidates have topped $42 million since 1999, and annual tribal gambling revenue exceeds $5 billion.

The California brand of hardball "concerns me," said Bureau of Indian Affairs head Neal McCaleb. "It makes me wonder what's next."

Six months after passage of Proposition 1A, Buena Vista leader Donnamarie Potts announced that the tribe was teaming up with Cascade Entertainment Group, a Sacramento gaming firm, to build a $100-million casino on its rancheria 30 miles southeast of the state capital. Most of the investors were New York financiers, a Cascade executive said, but he would not identify them.

They envisioned a sprawling gambling hall filled with 2,000 slot machines, restaurants, a concert arena and a Native American sculpture garden. A high fence and a park would protect the old cemetery, Potts said.

One of the graves on the knoll holds the remains of Jesse Flying Cloud Pope, the father of Rhonda Morningstar Pope. She objected to the prospect of a casino. The plan would desecrate the cemetery, she said.

Pope charged that she had been unlawfully excluded when Potts formed the tribal government in 1994. Pope argued that she should be negotiating for the tribe because she is a Buena Vista Miwok by blood, while Potts is related to the tribe only by marriage.

Between her salary as a bookkeeper and child care payments, Pope's annual income is only $30,000. But she hired three law firms to steer her claim through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the courts. Sources say her financial backer is Thomas C. Wilmot, a Rochester, N.Y., shopping-mall developer and Democratic donor who has invested in several tribes around the country hoping to build casinos. Wilmot would not comment.

Pope does not rule out supporting a Buena Vista casino somewhere outside the rancheria grounds. Under federal law, Native Americans can purchase property adjacent to their reservations and ask that the U.S. take the land into trust, recognizing it as territory where tribal rule holds sway. Several undeveloped parcels border the Buena Vista rancheria.

Pope's breakthrough came Dec. 27, 2001, when the superintendent of the Central California BIA office agreed to void the tribe's constitution, essentially removing Potts from control and cutting off federal funding that paid her tribal salary of $20,000 a year. A few months later, a court order postponed any work on the casino until the wrangling was resolved.

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