Federal agencies lack enforcement options
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A key provision of Indian gaming law often goes unenforced, according to federal officials charged with oversight of the $12 billion and growing industry.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) share several responsibilities when it comes to tribal casinos. The agencies, along with tribal and state regulators, are charged with making sure gaming facilities are operating within the law.

For the BIA, one of its duties is the land-into-trust process, an often controversial and lengthy affair that involves removing land from state and local jurisdiction. Except under special circumstances, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) prohibits tribes from opening casinos on land taken into trust after 1988.

But there is little federal or state governments can do to make sure tribes comply with this provision, officials said. The jurisdictional void is most evident in Oklahoma, where tribes operate Class II facilities over which the state has no say.

"Once the land is into trust, we can't do anything with it after that," said Jeanette Hanna, who oversees the eastern Oklahoma region for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "It's the NIGC's responsibility."

Last summer, former NIGC chairman Montie Deer, a Clinton appointee, became concerned about the casinos in Hanna's region. He asked the BIA to show that tribes weren't violating the post-1988 ban on gaming on newly acquired trust land.

Although the review stirred sentiments among tribal leaders in Oklahoma, it has been abandoned recently, according to those involved. NIGC, whose budget is $8 million for the current year, says it doesn't have the resources to continue. With nearly 200 tribes in more than two dozen states offering some sort of gaming, regulators are already stretched thin.

NIGC also ran into a roadblock due to lack of information from counterparts at BIA, an agency responsible for managing 54 million acres of trust land. Lacking an answer to Deer's query, NIGC officials can't take any action. And state officials have no authority because the land is already under federal control.

According to Hanna, her region follows a strict land-into-trust process. If the land is to be used for housing, a smoke shop or non-gaming purposes, the tribe's application can be handled entirely by officials in Oklahoma, Hanna said.

But if the tribe plans to open a casino, she said the final decision rests with George Skibine, the director of BIA's Office of Indian Gaming Management, located in Washington, D.C.

The process, however, breaks down when a tribe doesn't make its casino intentions known up front. The Chickasaw Nation, for example, has added gaming machines to its smoke shops and convenience stores on land that was taken into trust after 1988. In an earlier interview, Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby said the BIA officials in Oklahoma have never questioned this practice.

Of at least 11 Chickasaw Nation facilities that were taken into trust post-1988, none were scrutinized beyond the regional level, a review of federal documents and interviews with federal officials showed.

Breaking from earlier practice, the tribe has asked Skibine's office to rule on a land-into-trust request for gaming purposes. The application was made last fall and the tribe still hasn't been given an answer.

Relevant Laws:
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (National Indian Gaming Commission)

Relevant Links:
National Indian Gaming Commission -

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