NIGC chairman stresses independence to Obama team
The outgoing leader of the National Indian Gaming Commission said on Tuesday he is encouraging the incoming administration to maintain the agency's independence.

NIGC Chairman Phil Hogen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, has served as the federal government's top Indian gaming regulator since December 2002. "I've probably overstayed my welcome," he said at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

Hogen doesn't know how long he will stay on the job once Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on January 20, 2009. But it's possible it will be months before his replacement completes the nomination and confirmation process.

"I certainly stand ready to hand the baton off," Hogen told attendees of the conference.

Until the situation changes, Hogen has been identifying key issues for Obama's transition team. His biggest concern is ensuring that NIGC remains an independent agency as envisioned by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

"I'm deeply concerned that [NIGC's independence] not be infringed upon," Hogen said.

Hogen works closely with other federal officials and agencies on gaming issues. But he said he has tried to protect NIGC from interference at the Department of the Interior, where gaming has received a chilly reception from Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Hogen pointed out that IGRA requires at least two of the three NIGC members to be Indian. Having someone at Interior "that's not necessarily an Indian" review the NIGC's decisions isn't something he is willing to accept.

"I think that's a step in the wrong direction," Hogen said.

Hogen didn't elaborate but it's widely known that NIGC and top officials at Interior have clashed over a key aspect of IGRA. Both sides claim authority to issue Indian land determinations, which are used to determine whether a tribe can engage in gaming at a particular site.

During a panel on Monday, Paula Hart, a senior gaming official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, described the clash as a "big dispute" that emerged over the past couple of years -- right around Kempthorne's arrival at Interior. She said neither side appears to be ceding ground on the matter.

"We've tried to stay out of that," said Hart, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York.

In at least two recent cases, the NIGC has allowed tribes to engage in gaming through decisions that Interior officials, privately, have said they will not accept. One has led to a lawsuit by the states of Nebraska and Iowa over the Ponca Tribe's proposed casino in Iowa.

Another case involves the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama. After Hogen said the tribe could continue operating its casino, Kempthorne asked him for a meeting to discuss the land determinations dispute, though nothing concrete appears to have emerged from the debate.

Despite Hogen's insistence on independence, whoever holds the title of Secretary of the Interior will play a key role in shaping the NIGC. While the NIGC chairman position is subject to Senate confirmation, the other two posts are nominated by the Interior secretary.

There have been no hints from the Obama camp as to people being considered for Interior secretary or the NIGC chairman. Tradition dictates that the Interior secretary be nominated, confirmed and sworn in before other Interior political posts are announced.

Global Gaming Expo continues today with panels on IGRA, tribal financing and investors in Indian Country. The conference concludes on Thursday.

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