Monday, June 13, 2005

NAT: Tigua fortunes plummet

From The New York Times

For a Tribe in Texas, an Era of Prosperity Undone by Politics
By FOX BUTTERFIELD, June 13, 2005


EL PASO - There are no customers at the Speaking Rock Casino now. Inside the adobe building, built by the Tigua Indians to look like a large pueblo-style home, it is eerily silent and dark, no clinking coins, no 24-hour-a-day bright lights.

The 1,500 slot machines that attracted 100,000 visitors a month to the casino, earning the small Tigua tribe $60 million a year, are gone, taken away after the State of Texas won a federal lawsuit three years ago declaring that the tribe did not have the right to run a casino here on their ancestral land, the oldest settlement in Texas.

The Tiguas' efforts to get their casino reopened and their dealings with Washington insiders promising access and influence got them caught up in the spreading investigations involving the lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Republican political figures, including the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, and Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition who is running for lieutenant governor in Georgia.

But here on the dusty east side of El Paso, where the casino overlooks the Rio Grande and Juárez, Mexico, this is less a story about machinations in Washington than about how a tribe lifted itself out of centuries of poverty into sudden prosperity, complete with good wages, health insurance and college scholarships for its 1,300 members, only to see its fortunes plummet.

"In two or three years it will be back to the way it was before we had gaming," said Arturo Senclair, the tribal governor. "Then we'll be dependent on whatever federal money we can get, after we tried so hard to be self-sufficient."

All but 82 of the 1,000 casino employees have been laid off. Those remaining have had their wages cut and have lost their free medical insurance, 401(k) retirement plans and paid vacations.

Also gone are the $15,000 annual distributions to each member of the tribe from casino profits, almost equal to the median per capita income in El Paso of $17,000.

How the Tiguas got their casino, lost it and have tried to get it back is a complex tale of gambling and politics involving newcomers to the political arena with money to burn and Washington lobbyists seeking profit. It took several steps and several years for the Tiguas to open their casino. In 1987 they won federal recognition as a tribe with their own reservation, as long as they followed the law of Texas.

The next year, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which authorizes tribes to open casinos on their reservations if their state permits gambling. In 1991, by constitutional referendum, Texas voters approved several forms of gambling, including a state lottery and horse and dog racing.

The Tiguas seized on the referendum as the legal rationale for opening their casino. In 1993 they tried to sign a gaming compact with Gov. Ann W. Richards making clear their legal authority to run the casino. When she declined, they won a ruling by a federal district judge ordering Texas to negotiate the compact, and went into business.

The casino had been open five years when Gov. George W. Bush campaigned for re-election in 1998. One of his main themes was his opposition to gambling and, in particular, to the Tigua casino, which by then was one of the biggest businesses in El Paso.

"There ought not to be casino gambling in the state of Texas, any shape or form of it," Governor Bush said then, taking a stance that put him in line with Christian conservatives and that he repeated in his presidential campaign. Mr. Bush said the casino violated the law, since Texas did not permit casinos. To the Tiguas, the 1988 law allowing Indians to open casinos and the 1991 referendum permitting gambling gave them legal authority.

Profits from the casino made the Tiguas political players, giving them money to make contributions. In 1998 they gave $100,000 to Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent, Gary Mauro. It was the logical choice, since El Paso was the last Democratic stronghold in Texas, and the Tiguas enjoyed a close relationship with President Bill Clinton, said Tom Diamond, the tribe's lawyer.

After his re-election as governor, Mr. Bush got the Legislature to appropriate $100,000 for the state's attorney general, John Cornyn, now a Republican senator, to take legal action against the tribe. Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said there was no connection between the Tiguas' campaign contribution and Mr. Bush's stance.

"The president long supported closing the casino because it was operating illegally," Ms. Perino said. "While the voters of Texas had approved a state lottery, they had not approved casino gambling."

Mr. Cornyn sued in federal court in 1999 and ultimately won in 2002.

By 1999, Mr. Abramoff, the lobbyist, had hired Mr. Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, on behalf of the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana, which had a casino in Louisiana near the Texas border and wanted to block competition in Texas. Mr. Reed was to drum up support among conservative Christians for Mr. Cornyn's legal attack on the Tigua casino.

Mr. Senclair has a file folder with 250 e-mail messages from Mr. Abramoff; his partner, Michael Scanlon; Mr. Reed; and others that he says outlines tactics for closing the Tigua casino and, after it was closed, for getting money from the Tiguas to win its reopening.

The messages were provided by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which has been investigating whether Mr. Abramoff and others defrauded Indian tribes. The committee plans to hold hearings this month on its findings, said Andrea Jones, a spokeswoman for the committee chairman, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

In one message dated Feb. 11, 2002, the day of the court ruling against the Tiguas, Mr. Abramoff wrote to Mr. Scanlon: "I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!! Oh well, stupid folks get wiped out."

Four days later, the Tigua leaders say, Mr. Abramoff arrived in El Paso with a plan to reopen the casino by getting a powerful Republican congressman to insert an amendment in an unrelated bill.

The cost was $4.2 million paid to Mr. Scanlon, $2 million of which he sent to Mr. Abramoff, according to the Senate investigation. The Tiguas were also told to make $300,000 in political contributions to Republicans in Washington or to their political action committees, which they did, Mr. Senclair said.

To Mr. Diamond, the tribe's lawyer, the Tiguas were not naïve. Everything Mr. Abramoff promised to do he had done for other tribes, and his plan was the same as one their previous advisers had proposed.

But, Mr. Senclair said, "We were betrayed."

Earlier this year the Tiguas got back about half the $4.2 million in a settlement with Mr. Abramoff's former law firm over his role in working to close and then reopen the casino.

Andrew Blum, a spokesman for Mr. Abramoff's lawyer, said it was a lie to suggest that Mr. Abramoff had a conflict of interest. Mr. Abramoff was not trying to get the Tigua casino closed, Mr. Blum said. Instead, he was taking aim at another Indian casino near Houston, and when the Tigua casino closed, "Mr. Abramoff then sought to help the Tiguas where he could," Mr. Blum said in an e-mail message.

But the slot machines are still gone, replaced by "entertainment machines" that dispense only credits for consumer goods. And the years of prosperity are slipping away. Lori Rivera, 40, once the supervisor in the casino's cashier's office, is in many ways the embodiment of the tale. She grew up in a one-room mud shack without running water or electricity. She got a job in the casino, and as the profits rolled in, she became eligible for a new house on a reservation of 300 acres of former pecan orchards that the Tiguas had bought.

The new reservation looks like an upscale subdivision of two-story homes. At its entrance is a large fitness center with a weight room, a basketball court and an Olympic-size swimming pool.

But on a recent afternoon, the pool was empty. Too many people have had to leave El Paso to find work, said Carlos Hisa, the tribal lieutenant governor.

Ms. Rivera is worried about what will happen to her two grandchildren, as the tribal leaders have begun cutting stipends for school.

"Before the casino, most Tigua kids didn't stay in school because they were so poor they couldn't afford shoes, and they were embarrassed," Ms. Rivera said. "Everything was going really well.

Now we're going backwards."

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