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Oklahoma tribe hires ex-BIA official to lobby for land


Lobbying Registration: Aurene Martin for Chickasaw Nation
An Oklahoma tribe whose gaming sites have been questioned by federal officials and investigators is mounting a full-scale lobbying effort in Washington, D.C.

The Chickasaw Nation owns more gaming facilities than any other tribe in Oklahoma and in the country. The empire brings in an estimated $300 million a year and is slated to expand with the completion of what will be the largest casino in the state.

But the Interior Department has raised questions about the legality of some of the casino sites. Officials have confirmed that the tribe skipped the lengthy approval process for gaming on lands acquired after the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

In hopes of resolving those doubts, the tribe recently hired Aurene Martin, a former Bush administration official. She will be lobbying her former employer -- the Interior Department -- in order to secure federal approval of the tribe's gaming sites, according to an October 12 filing with the Senate.

The hiring of the Holland & Knight firm also signals bigger possibilities for the tribe. Retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), the former chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, joined the firm earlier this year.

Due to federal law, Campbell is blocked from lobbying his former colleagues for a year. But Martin, a former Senate aide who once worked for Campbell, is under no such restriction and is free to represent tribal governments before the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where one of the tribe's land-into-trust applications has languished.

Martin left the BIA in September 2004. As the former acting assistant secretary and former principal deputy assistant secretary at the agency, she had direct involvement with land-into-trust matters, particularly those that deal with gaming.

That experience will come in handy for the Chickasaw Nation, whose land holdings have quadrupled in the past decade. According to March 2004 report in The Oklahoman newspaper, the tribe owns about 8,600 acres in a 13-county area, up from about 2,450 in 1998.

The tribe is conducting gaming on a number of those newly-acquired sites. But in almost every single case, the tribe skirted the review process required by Section 20 of IGRA, which limits gaming on lands taken into trust after 1988.

At the time of the acquisitions, the tribe didn't specify that it would use the properties for gaming, eliminating the Section 20 review process. Only later did the tribe open gaming facilities on the land, a tactic that occurred at least 11 times, according to an Indianz.Com count.

The tribe, however, did disclose its gaming plans for one parcel of newly-acquired land in Ada. That application has been pending at the BIA's central office in Washington since October 2001.

According to BIA officials, this is the first time any Chickasaw Nation fee-to-trust transaction has been submitted to the Office of Indian Gaming Management, which Martin oversaw during her tenure. In the past, the local BIA agency in Ada or the regional BIA office in Muskogee approved the applications without seeking additional review under Section 20 IGRA.

The Section 20 process has been the subject of heightened scrutiny due to controversy over off-reservation gaming. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs, just introduced a bill to "put an end to the most troublesome" Section 20-related proposals, he said.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the House Resources Committee, also has proposed legislation to overhaul the Section 20 process.

Neither proposal would directly address the Chickasaw situation, in part due to the unique history of land in Oklahoma. McCain's bill would leave intact existing provisions in IGRA that allow gaming on newly acquired lands if they are within, or contiguous to, former reservations and Indian allotments in the state.

But a critical sentence in McCain's proposal could benefit the Chickasaw Nation greatly. The bill states that gaming can continue to occur on newly-acquired lands that were "determined ... to be eligible to be used for purposes of gaming" by either the Interior Department or the National Indian Gaming Commission. This language would help the Chickasaw Nation because the BIA has approved a Class III gaming compact for some of the tribe's gaming sites.

"If they were taken into trust for non-gaming purposes, as long as they are within the former reservation of the tribe -- and we looked at that -- the tribe can do [gaming]," George Skibine, the BIA official in charge of gaming, said in a March 2004 interview with Indianz.Com.

Separately, McCain has introduced a bill to close what he called the "revolving door" in Washington. He wants to force former BIA employees, like Martin, to wait a year before representing tribal governments in matters at Interior. In the case of the Chickasaw Nation, Martin was officially retained slightly a year after she left the Bush administration.

McCain IGRA Bill:
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act Amendments of 2005 (S.2078) | Floor Statement (November 18, 2005)

Indianz.Com Lobbying Reports:
McCain seeks to close 'revolving door' in Washington (06/28)
Lobbying Report: The revolving door in Washington (06/06)
Lobbying Report: The Holland & Knight firm (05/23)

Relevant Links:
Chickasaw Nation -