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The State

Chumash May Bar Officials From Casino

The tribe will vote on the proposal, a response to a Dec. 7 incident in which the chairman requested free chips at a blackjack table.

January 02, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

As a result of an incident in which the chairman of the Chumash Indian tribe demanded and was given free chips at the blackjack table, the tribe is likely to ban elected tribal officials from its Santa Ynez casino.

The upcoming vote to bar officials from the casino near Solvang, north of Santa Barbara, is the latest fallout from the Dec. 7 incident.

It also is another in a string of controversies that have dogged Vincent Armenta since he took office as chairman of the 158-member tribe in 1999.

Leading tribal members, however, predicted that Armenta would survive the latest scandal, as he has others. A recall petition against him was circulated in 2001, but it failed. Residents in the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley also have opposed plans spearheaded by Armenta to modernize and expand the casino.

"I made a mistake and admitted it to the tribe," Armenta said in a prepared statement. "If the tribe had wanted me to step down, I would have."

Frances Snyder, a spokeswoman for the tribe and a member, said, "All the good things he has done for the tribe outweigh one mistake."

According to Snyder, Armenta visited the casino on a Saturday night with friends and his son, who was celebrating his birthday.

"They played at one of the blackjack tables and, during the course of their visit, some chips were 'comped,' " she said.

Snyder said the casino, at Armenta's request, gave about $300 worth of chips to members of the party; Armenta played with his own money.

She said it is not unusual for the casino to "comp" certain guests with free rooms and food as an incentive for them to keep playing. Giving chips away on the floor, though, is a different matter, Snyder agreed, because it raises questions about the fairness of the games.

Nonetheless, she said, Armenta apparently considered the free chips to be a promotion "and did not realize it was an error."

When the casino's surveillance crew saw what was going on, members notified the casino manager and a member of the tribe's gaming commission, which regulates operations at the casino.

At that point, play was stopped, Snyder said. The pit boss and the dealer at Armenta's table were later suspended for 30 days.

Because the Chumash tribe is a sovereign nation, it handled the incident as an internal matter, Snyder said. On Dec. 19, as many as 60 members of the tribe gathered at a special meeting to view the surveillance tapes and to hear an apology from the chairman, she said.

Although several members at the meeting called for Armenta to step down, Snyder said most of those in attendance seemed satisfied with his explanation. Armenta's post is up for election in March. He has not said whether he intends to run again.

"Tribal politics can be vicious," Armenta said. "If a few people want you out, they find ways to try to get you out of office."

He expressed regret that "employees had to be disciplined for my actions."

At the Dec. 19 meeting, it was suggested that a new rule be adopted, barring all 10 elected tribal officials from the casino.

Snyder said ballots to vote on the proposal would be going out shortly to the tribe. She said she expected it to pass handily.

Among Armenta's accomplishments, Snyder listed $150 million in bonds he was able to obtain from the Bank of America to finance construction of a new 190,000-square-foot casino that is expected to be finished late this year.

The Chumash opened a new tribal hall and health clinic last month. The tribe is also one of the largest employers in Santa Barbara County, Snyder said.

Asked about the public reaction to the controversy, she said casino visitors were happy to see that surveillance was in place and that the issue had been dealt with.

Along with the tribe's own inquiry, the National Indian Gaming Commission in Washington is said to be looking into the matter.

Commission Chairman Philip Hogen said the organization has the power to issue fines or even shut down a casino found to be in violation of gaming regulations. He doubted the harshest penalty would be imposed on a first offense.

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