Indian gaming agenda discussed at meeting
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Tribal and Indian leaders reacted with caution on Thursday to a challenge to open their casino records to the public.

The idea, raised earlier in the week by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), wasn't rejected outright at a joint meeting of tribal leaders and officials from the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). But attendees said it needed to be investigated further.

"I don't like that word 'transparency,'" said NIGA President Ernie Stevens of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.

Speaking at NCAI's winter session, McCain, an author of the federal law that cleared the way for what is now a $12 billion and growing industry, urged tribes to combat a "rising tide of anti-gaming resentment" by disclosing how much money their casinos make and how it is spent. "Take it from a 20-year friend," he said on Tuesday.

McCain, a champion of open government, didn't make a formal proposal. But he said tribal opponents will use media scrutiny and criticism of Indian gaming to put "pressure on Congress" to amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) or make other changes to federal law.

Stevens, noting McCain's record of advocacy for Indian Country, approached the issue from a standpoint of tribal sovereignty. "I respect the senator utmostly," he said, "but I work for the tribal leaders."

Tribes make full disclosure of their proceeds to the National Indian Gaming Commission (NICC), the federal agency charged with oversight of the tribal casino industry. Mark Van Norman, executive director of NIGA, said the information is protected by federal privacy laws and drew a distinction between agencies that regulate private businesses and those that oversee sovereigns.

Reporting requirements vary in Indian Country, with many tribes required by compact to disclose information to state gaming commissions. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota makes public the audit of its casino, said NCAI President Tex Hall, chairman of the tribe.

The Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, a leader in the industry, has long disclosed its figures. Other tribes report earnings to their tribal membership through publications or other means.

Beyond McCain's challenge, the meeting focused on the joint priorities of the two organizations. Making their own call for more transparency, the tribes want NIGC to release full details of its $8 million budget, which will grow to $12 million in fiscal year 2004.

They also discussed the political contribution case involving the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. A California court ruled yesterday that the tribe was subject to state election laws. The decision wasn't released until after the meeting, but tribes were worried about the impact.

"You need to show that you have the right to request information from us as a sovereign nation," is how one California tribal official termed the dispute.

The Agua Caliente council in a statement said the court "failed to follow clear federal law concerning its sovereignty." Tribal officials are meeting next week to consider whether to appeal. "In the meantime, the tribe will continue to make full voluntary disclosure of all information called for by state law, both in writing to the Secretary of State and on our website," the statement read.

The negative decisions of the Supreme Court were also a concern. Tribes yesterday finalized a brief in support of the Bishop Paiute Tribe of California, whose casino was raided by local county law enforcement after the tribe declined to share protected employee records. The case will be heard by the Supreme Court next month.

"When a county comes after you with bolt cutters, you have to defend yourself," said Van Norman, a former Department of Justice official.

Relevant Links:
Sen. John McCain -
National Congress of American Indians -
National Indian Gaming Association -

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