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Federal Regulators Stand Behind Chumash Probe of Casino Incident

January 10, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

The Chumash tribe took all necessary actions after an incident last month at its Santa Barbara County casino when tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta requested and received free chips at a blackjack table, federal regulators announced Thursday.

The finding by the National Indian Gaming Commission, a regulatory agency operating within the U.S. Interior Department, was hailed by tribal leaders as an appropriate end to a controversy that still could lead the tribe to ban gambling by top tribal officials.

The federal investigation followed an internal tribal probe that led to 30-day suspensions of two casino employees. In addition, Armenta publicly apologized for the incident, but rejected suggestions from a few tribal critics that he resign.

Armenta admitted that, during a celebration of the birthday of one of his sons, he asked for about $300 worth of chips for party guests as they gambled at the tribe's Santa Ynez casino on Dec. 7. He played with his own money.

After the incident had been reported to the media and government investigators by some of Armenta's tribal critics, the tribe held a special meeting on Dec. 19. Three of 50 tribe members called for his resignation, but his apology satisfied the rest, a tribal spokeswoman said.

In addition, many members expressed support for an official ban on gambling by any of the 158-member tribe's 10 elected officials in the casino. Frances Snyder, tribal spokeswoman, said an official vote on that policy should be conducted within a month or so.

Richard Schiff, acting chief of staff of the federal gaming commission, said in Washington on Thursday that the government endorsed the tribal investigation after reviewing surveillance tapes and conducting its own review.

"We went down there remembering that the tribal government has the first responsibility in these situations," said Schiff, whose agency regulates about 310 Indian gambling enterprises across the country.

"As a general proposition, senior tribal officials would be well served to stay out of the casinos," he added.

Armenta blamed tribal politics for the publicity over the incident, accusing his critics of hurting the entire tribe to embarrass him. Chairman of the tribe since 1999, Armenta faces election in March, but has not said whether he intends to run again.

The federal government's conclusions about the incident clearly demonstrate that "we have safeguards in place to ensure that our casino operates with the highest level of integrity," Armenta said Thursday.

"It's unfortunate that some of my political opponents used misinformation, false allegations and personal attacks without merit in an attempt to damage my reputation," he added. "Whoever did this should be held accountable, because that individual put the entire tribe at risk."

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash is the only federally recognized Chumash tribe in the U.S. Its casino outside Solvang has become increasingly controversial in the Santa Ynez Valley in recent years because of a major expansion project that involves construction of a much larger casino, a parking structure and a 105-room hotel.

County officials and some Solvang residents have criticized the casino's growth, saying that they fear more casino patrons will clog country roads and strain local law enforcement capacities.

Gail Marshall, who represents the area on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, has accused the tribe of using its status as a sovereign government to avoid environmental laws.

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