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Tribes Can Lose Slots, Official Says

Leader of gambling panel contends the state has authority to 'yank' licenses under some circumstances. Indian officials disagree.

March 12, 2004|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The new chairman of California's Gambling Control Commission expressed an aversion to gambling Thursday, and called for clearer authority to audit and inspect fast-expanding Indian casinos.

Burks "Dean" Shelton, selected by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to head the commission, said he believes the state has the authority to "yank their licenses for those slot machines" if, for example, the casinos are found to be cheating.

That view is disputed by some tribal representatives, who contend that Indian casinos answer primarily to their own oversight commissions and to the federal government.

Shelton, who served as former Gov. Pete Wilson's liaison to law enforcement, spent 34 years as a police officer and was police chief in South Lake Tahoe.

Recalling that he arrested his first bookie in 1958, shortly after he became a police officer, Shelton, 67, said: "I don't gamble and I don't like gambling."

South Lake Tahoe suffered, Shelton said, from an array of ills brought about by casinos across the state line in Nevada, ranging from money laundering to demands on social services to children left unattended while parents worked in casinos.

But he added that gambling won't disappear and must be regulated.

Shelton said he has no position on a proposed ballot initiative that would expand gambling in California if Indian tribes do not agree to pay the state a fourth of their winnings and abide by several other provisions.

But he said he believes that the state has the authority to inspect and audit tribal casinos -- and suspend their licenses for extreme violations -- though he acknowledged that tribes have balked at state oversight.

"What we need is to educate some of the tribes -- not all of them -- of that authority so it is not so threatening to them," Shelton said.

"No, they don't have authority to yank licenses," said Nikki Symington, longtime spokeswoman for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, which owns a large casino in San Diego County. "The only people who can even challenge the games, be they [slot machines] or anything else -- are the National Indian Gaming Commission."

Andrew Miranda, vice chairman of the tribal commission that oversees the casino owned by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Riverside County, said he would like to believe that tribes and the state could come to a mutual agreement before it ever came to revoking licenses.

"Tribal gaming agencies are the primary regulatory body on tribal land," Miranda said. "The state definitely has a role. The tribes and the state have not come to agreement on what that it is. But I believe we can come up with agreement."

Shelton called the provisions of the compact negotiated by former Gov. Gray Davis and Indian tribes in 1999 very confusing on the issue of audit authority.

As Schwarzenegger's aides negotiate with tribes over changes to that pact, the commission's attorneys are urging that the lines of authority be made clear. "There needs to be clarification," said Shelton, speaking to reporters at the Gambling Control Commission's office.

Underscoring Shelton's view that the state has authority to investigate tribal casino operations, Commissioner Arlo Smith, a Davis appointee who joined Shelton at the news conference, cited Public Law 280, which he said grants state and county police the power to investigate crimes on Indian reservations.

In the past, tribes have reacted to commission efforts to assert its authority by turning to allies in the Legislature, and seeking to have friendly legislators hold up the commission's budget. Smith, a former San Francisco district attorney, criticized Davis, saying that the Democratic governor never assisted the commission when it was attacked.

Shelton said the commission has Schwarzenegger's support, and that he has ready access to the governor's top aides. He said his instruction upon being appointed was to "do the right thing."

"If I need to be, I'll be outspoken," Shelton said. "If I had to talk to the governor, I'd find a way."

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