Disappearance of casino deals called „mistake“

Sacramento – In June, on the day after the No. 2 man at the U.S. Department of the Interior was sentenced to prison for lying about his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued a new ethics policy for the agency.

Kempthorne’s guidelines vowed to make the troubled department “a model of an ethical workplace” with integrity as a “core value.”

But that commitment has been called into question by the department’s failure to take a hard look at another major embarrassment and potential scandal unfolding from within.

Four California Indian gambling agreements, deals worth perhaps more than USD 50 billion, went missing for nearly three months after they were sent to Interior in early September.

The disappearance forced the agency to approve the agreements automatically without any review, even though they still face a statewide vote on California’s Feb. 5 ballot.

Interior officials have dismissed the blunder as a mistake by an unknown employee. But they cannot explain how they determined it was an innocent oversight if they don’t know who did it.

“Somebody made a mistake; we don’t know who,” said Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a branch of Interior. “This is a very busy office. There was a mistake made and we’re moving on.”

Some within the agency and longtime critics have been surprised that Interior has not launched an investigation into the disappearance of such lucrative compacts for tribes that also are major campaign contributors.

“I don’t think accidents like this happen,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog that has been critical of Interior in the past.

On Friday, Kempthorne said he has asked Carl Artman, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, to find out what happened.

“We don’t know where they went. … Apparently an address had been incorrect,” Kempthorne said. “But they’ve been reviewed; they’re released, so it’s now back in the state of California’s hands.”

Kempthorne said he has seen nothing to indicate “anything improper” occurred.

The compacts authorize one of the largest gambling expansions in state history for four of California’s most successful tribes – Sycuan of El Cajon, Pechanga of Temecula, Morongo of east Riverside County and Agua Caliente of Palm Springs.

The deals negotiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allow the tribes to add up to 17,000 more slot machines, a 29 percent increase over the 59,000 already in the state .

Referendum measures on the February ballot would nullify legislation that ratified the compacts. But even before those measures qualified for a vote, Interior had expressed misgivings about one of the compacts: Sycuan’s.

The agreement authorizes the tribe to build a second casino on lands that are not yet part of the reservation or in trust, the status necessary to conduct gaming. Two years ago, officials at Interior declared the agency would no longer consider gambling agreements for lands not yet in trust or otherwise eligible for gaming.

If voters reject the compacts, the legal weight of the premature federal approval would become the subject of a long legal fight, several attorneys predicted.

In Washington, the four tribes‘ political clout has been developed through generous campaign contributions to members of both parties. Over the past decade, Morongo, Pechanga and Agua Caliente have consistently ranked among the top 10 tribal contributors to federal candidates, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

During that span, the three tribes contributed nearly USD 3.5 million to federal candidates and campaigns. Sycuan contributed USD 274,000.

Agua Caliente also was one of Abramoff’s clients. The tribe paid the disgraced lobbyist USD 10 million. J. Steven Griles, the former No. 2 at Interior, was sentenced to 10 months in prison for lying to senators about his relationship with Abramoff.

That triggered the pledge by Interior leadership to make certain that actions within the agency were above board.

The four tribes have said they didn’t even know their compacts were pending in Washington. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen sent them to Interior without the tribes‘ knowledge, several tribal representatives said.

“We were just as surprised as everyone else, pleasantly though,” said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the four tribes.

Aides to Bowen said she was simply following a legal requirement to submit the compacts, even though the referendum measures suspended state ratification of the agreements.

Indian Affairs spokeswoman Darling said the compacts were misplaced after they were sent to the wrong office, Room 2070 of the main Interior building. That is the former office of George Skibine, head of the bureau’s Indian gaming management branch and the man who reviews most gambling agreements.

The office now houses Interior’s Accessible Technology Center, which supplies equipment for handicapped employees. A staffer there has told officials she clearly recalled receiving the compacts in a Federal Express package and promptly delivered them to Artman’s office.

“Apparently no one there will acknowledge or remembers getting the package,” Skibine said. “That’s where we lose the trail.”

The compacts turned up 80 days later in Skibine’s in-box. It’s unknown who dropped them off or where they had been, Skibine and others said. But the long hiatus left the agency with few options.

Federal law gives Interior 45 days to act on a proposed compact. If the secretary neither approves nor rejects a compact during that span, it is deemed approved.

In early December, Interior deemed the compacts approved. Skibine was still hopeful the department could delay final approval, which requires a notice published in the Federal Register. There is no deadline to do that.

But Skibine was directed by his superiors – he won’t say who – to send the approval notices through the process. They were published Dec. 19.

In addition to the compacts‘ disappearance, Interior officials can’t explain why the same thing didn’t happen to another California compact that was sent to the same address in October.

The compact for the San Manuel band of suburban San Bernardino, another expansive agreement authorizing up to 7,500 slots, reached Skibine on Nov. 6, a week after it was mailed to his old office. At that point, Interior officials had no reason to change any procedures because they did not yet know the other compacts were missing.

San Manuel’s deal was negotiated with the other four but ratified later and does not face a referendum. Unlike the others, it had become largely noncontroversial and was widely expected to receive federal approval.

All five compacts – San Manuel’s and the other four – were sent in packages directed to Artman’s attention.

Artman, a member of the Wisconsin Oneida tribe and a former Washington lobbyist, was appointed by President Bush. He declined to be interviewed. But he is no stranger to the big Southern California tribes.

While Artman served as his tribe’s general counsel, the Wisconsin Oneida developed two hotel projects with San Manuel and the Viejas tribe of Alpine. The hotels are in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Artman did request an internal review of what happened, Darling said.

“I don’t know how deep it was. I know Mr. Artman had some questions … on the tracking of where things were and they were found and things moved forward at that point,” she said.

Whether the compacts‘ disappearance was an accident or a deliberate act would be something for the agency’s inspector general to investigate, Darling said.

The inspector general’s office has made some preliminary inquiries, but it has not opened an investigation and probably won’t without an allegation of fraud, spokesman Roy Kime said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the few California political leaders who has been willing to challenge the powerful tribes, said she will review the matter.

“I have not been briefed on this,” Feinstein said through a spokesman, “but I’ve asked my staff to look into it. In general, I am not a fan of expanding gaming in California.”

In the bucolic Dehesa Valley, where the federal approval could permit Sycuan to more than double the size of its gambling operation, some residents feel betrayed.

“It’s just amazing to me that this can happen,” said Pat Riggs, president of the Dehesa Valley Community Council.