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Justice bill puts focus on tribal casino crime

Despite the controversy over conditions at Indian Country jails, an appropriations bill approved by the House last month provides scant funds for the troubled facilities.

Instead, more money directed to investigating tribal casinos. Although federal officials say they only have 31 open cases of casino crime, the bill would provide $5.5 million and 53 positions for the FBI's Indian Country unit.

The shift in priorities is found in the Commerce, Justice and State (CJS) bill. Approved by a 397-18 vote on July 8, it provides $2 million for tribal jails, a slight increase over the $1.96 million approved the year before.

The focus on casino crime is largely the work of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), the chairman of the subcommittee that handles the CJS bill. An outspoken opponent of all forms of gambling, he has targeted crime at casinos for the past couple of years -- to the objection of organizations like the National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians.

Lobbying efforts by those two organizations have stripped earlier versions of the bill of provisions deemed anti-Indian. In 2003, tribes stopped Wolf's proposed study on Indian gaming and, in 2002, they killed another study on Native Americans in general. Other provisions were removed when the Senate took up its version of the bill.

The poor conditions of Bureau of Indian Affairs jails have been the focus of intense scrutiny in recent months. A preliminary Department of Interior investigation has found unreported cases of deaths, suicides and escapes. The Department of Justice has reported consistently for four years that the jails are operating far above capacity.

In contrast, crime at casinos has not exploded, according to statistics, even as the industry has grown to $16.2 billion in annual revenues. Federal officials who are part of the Indian Gaming Working Group say most of the violations involve thefts of cash by employees, not organized crime or other large-scale operations.

"About half the cases we look at deal with theft of proceeds," said Ernie Weyand, of the FBI's Indian Country unit, at a press briefing for the IGWG last month.

Thomas Heffelfinger, the U.S. Attorney for the state of Minnesota, said the problem is a significant one. In the non-Indian gaming industry, he said about 6 percent of net gaming revenues are lost to theft, embezzlement and fraud.

Nevertheless, he said that tribes are overly-protective of their facilities in ways that non-Indian gaming is not. "The very nature of the Indian gaming industry gives its one protection against infiltration of organized crime that may not exist in other industries," he said. "The tribal gaming operations themselves are tribally owned and the tribes that operate them have a very strong ... proprietary interest in their operations."

The House bill says the $5.5 million will be used to investigate all Indian Country crime but the report language accompanying the bill indicates that most of the concern is over casinos. It directs the Department of Justice "to provide quarterly reports describing Department resources dedicated to Indian Country and to combating illegal activity at Native American Casinos."

"This report shall include: the number of agents assigned to Indian Country; man-hours worked in Indian Country; the amount and types of training provided; the number of matters initiated; the number of cases; the number of subjects/defendants; the number of convictions; the amount of restitution ordered; and the actions of the Indian Gaming Working Group, including coordination with the National Indian Gaming Commission," the report states.

The Senate has not yet taken up its version of the CJS bill and has been slow to consider any appropriations due to a dispute over how they will be handled.

The budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which comes from the Interior Appropriations bill, seeks $7.8 million to staff eight jails that are being finished next year. The money was the first time the Bush administration requested funds for this item.

Separately, assistant secretary Dave Anderson has dedicated $6.4 million to improving conditions at the jails.

Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations Bill:
House Report | H.R.4754

Indian Country Jail Reports:
Year 2002 | Year 2001 | Year 2000 | Years 1998-1999