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Alabama-Coushatta

State sues Alabama-Coushatta tribe over casino

Here we go again.

A new legal salvo was fired this week in the state’s long-running battle against Indian gambling with a filing in federal court that seeks to close the gaming hall on the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation.

A motion for contempt and injunctive relief was filed Monday by Attorney General Ken Paxton, claiming that the Naskila Entertainment Center, which has offered electronic bingo since reopening in May, violates an existing court injunction.

It asks that the small East Texas tribe be ordered to halt the gaming operation, remove all gaming equipment and pay a civil penalty of $10,000 a day from June 2 until all gaming ceases.

On Tuesday, the log cabin-style hall on the 10,000-acre reservation in the Piney Woods east of Livingston was still open to the gaming public.

“We definitely think we’re in the right. The federal government and the National Indian Gaming Commission gave us the authority, so we think we’re on good legal grounds,” said tribal spokesman Carlos Bullock after conferring Tuesday with members of the tribal council.

[…]

The legal landscape for the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta appeared to improve last year when both the Interior Department and the NIGC issued administrative opinions that the two small tribes could offer certain types of gaming.

But earlier this year, the state won a marathon legal battle with the Tigua when a federal judge in El Paso ruled that the tribe’s entertainment center was really a thinly disguised gambling hall.

The Tigua now plan on offering permitted bingo-hall-style games that are legal in Texas.

In ordering the Tigua to cease offering “sweepstakes,” U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone also ruled that federal case law, which prohibited the gaming, trumped the opinions of the two federal agencies.

See here, here, and here for some background. This action by the state was completely expected, given past litigation and the noises the AG’s office had been making since the casino reopened. Both the Alabama-Coushatta and the Tigua tribes had tried again with their casinos under new administrative guidelines from the National Indian Gaming Commission, but the subsequent loss in court by the Tigua does not bode well for the Alabama-Coushatta. We’ll see how it goes.

Alabama-Coushatta casino opens

Get your gamble on, y’all.

Fourteen years after it was forced to close under threat of legal action by the state, the tribe’s modest casino reopened three weeks ago with little fanfare but great expectations.

Now, the vast, once empty parking lot outside the Naskila Entertainmnet Center is packed with cars by noon, as gamblers from around East Texas roll in to play electronic bingo under a vaulted ceiling of knotty pine.

The 365 blinking, beeping machines, with names like Gecko Wild, Moo La La and Double Hotness, draw players long starved for local gaming, and thus far, the reviews – even by folks losing money – are five-star.

[…]

More than 240 Indian tribes around the country offer certain types of gambling under the oversight of the National Indian Gaming Commission. In Texas, only the Kickapoo in Eagle Pass have done so without a legal challenge from the state.

The crucial breakthrough came late last year, when two federal agencies ruled that national Indian law superseded Texas’ authority to block either the Alabama-Coushatta in East Texas and the Tigua in El Paso from offering gaming.

Almost three decades earlier, the two small tribes had agreed to accept a ban on gaming as a condition of becoming federally recognized tribes. The Kickapoo received recognition without this condition and have offered gambling since 1996. They now have 3,200 machines in a large modern casino-hotel complex.

The state had sued the Tigua and the Alabama-Coushatta, forcing each to close its casino in 2002. While the Tigua have been in near constant litigation since, the Alabama-Coushatta adopted a less confrontational posture.

When both the U.S. Department of the Interior and the NIGC decided late last year that both have the right to offer Class II gaming, including bingo, electronic bingo and certain card games, the Alabama-Coushatta were quick to act.

What if anything the state now intends to do remains unclear. A spokesman for Attorney General Ken Paxton last week declined to comment on the issue.

See here and here for some background. Past statements from the AG’s office have suggested that they do intend to do something about this. It’s not like they have a great deal of respect for federal laws, after all. So if you want to sample the fare at the new Alabama-Coushatta casino, I’d advise doing it sooner rather than later.

The forthcoming fight over the Alabama-Coushatta casino in Texas

I missed this report from November.

After more than 13 years, the feds say the Alabama-Coushatta’s casino in Livingston can finally reopen. And here’s the kicker: according to the federal government’s reasoning, the tribe’s casino should never have been forced to close in the first place.

[…]

Recently, the tribe asked the Department of Interior and National Indian Gaming Association to clarify their legal standing, gambling-wise. In October, the Interior Department and the National Indian Gaming Commission decided that the Alabama-Coushatta (along with the Tigua, a tribe located on a reservation near El Paso) do actually have the right to offer bingo and electronic bingo on the reservation, meaning the Alabama-Coushatta will soon be open for business.

The Interior Department warned both the Alabama-Coushatta and the Tigua to be careful and line everything up with the National Indian Gaming Commission, considering the state isn’t likely to be happy with this development. Bullock says they’re intent on doing everything by the book. “The state hasn’t responded to us yet. I can’t say what their position is. I can’t anticipate what they’ll do, and we’re not going to. We’re going to do what the federal government allows us to do and that’s all.”

At the end of the day, the casino re-opening will be a game-changer for the people living on the reservation. There’s no firm opening date, Bullock says. The casino has been standing empty and acting as a sort of community center for more than a decade, but the tribe has already voted unanimously to pull money out of their permanent funds to get the casino ready.

The story delves into the background of this longstanding battle, the tl;dr version of which is that the casino that was opened in 2001 was shut down in 2002 thanks to the efforts of then-AG John Cornyn, with some court skirmishes and behind-the-scenes maneuvering since then. I’ve got a couple of posts on the more recent activity here and here; if you have a long memory and a morbid curiosity, see also here for one of the side attractions of the original fight, which went beyond Texas and demonstrated was an unscrupulous dirtbag Ralph Reed is.

So does this mean there’s casino gambling coming to Texas next year? I wouldn’t count on it just yet, because the state of Texas isn’t going to just let it happen. This story from last week explains (the lawsuit in question stems from the original fight).

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone issued an order requiring the Tiguas and other parties to the lawsuit to file their briefs on what the federal agency decision means.

On December 9 Paxton filed a brief on the Tiguas case — the tribe has been in a legal fight over the right to gamble for more than 20 years now — on the issue. Predictably he came down against it, contending that “no federal agency interpretation can contradict Congressional intent.”

The 26-page brief referenced 25 court cases and dug into eight “issues” that concerned the state, with most of the issues tugging at whether or not the National Indian Gaming Commission and the Department of the Interior had the right to even issue their opinion on gaming.

Paxton was pretty clear about what he thought:

“If Congress has explicitly left a gap for an agency to fill, there is an express delegation of authority to the agency to elucidate a specific provision of the statute … Here there is no gap. The only issues presented are legal issues for this court. Congress delegated no power or authority to either federal agency to interpret laws or invalidate portions of federal law.”

Outside of the brief Paxton has officially stayed silent on the question of the Alabama-Coushatta. “At this point, we will not be providing any comment,” Spokeswoman Teresa Farfan replied via email in response to our questions.

However, the Alabama-Coushatta come up twice in Paxton’s brief. The first mention comes right at the start:

“Should Texas be required to join the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe to this litigation … without any evidence that the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe is currently violating the Restoration Act?”

Then, at the end of the brief he answers his own question:

“Since this litigation was filed to enjoin and hold accountable the Pueblo defendants for their continued violation of federal law embodied in the Restoration Act, there is no need to … add third-party tribes which, unlike the Pueblo defendants here, are not currently violating federal law.”

Translation: The Alabama-Coushatta aren’t currently violating the federal law so they won’t be in trouble with the state until they actually do something to violate the federal law, like, you know, maybe reopening their casino in 2016.

So yeah. I’d continue to make plans to visit Louisiana or Vegas to get my gamble on for the near future. The Alabama-Coushatta may eventually prevail, but if so it won’t be in 2016.

More on the potential Coushatta casino

The Houston Press cover story from last week is about the Alabama-Coushatta tribe’s efforts to get a casino again. It covers a lot of the same ground as that Chron story I blogged about on Sunday, but it also reminds us of a very sordid aspect of the original casino and why it was closed.

A federal court had ruled that the Alabama-Coushatta had violated the terms of their recognition, which, as argued by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, stated that all gaming prohibited by the state of Texas was “hereby prohibited on the reservation and on lands of the tribe.” The challenge came with the full-throated ­support of Texas’s evangelical population, spurred on by a now-­notorious lobbyist named Jack Abramoff. (Ironically, the Alabama-Coushatta remain a heavily Christian community and even forbade alcohol at their former entertainment center.)

“We already knew that when we opened, we were going to be in litigation,” Williams continues. “We were prepared for that.” The ­Louisiana-­Coushatta, a related tribe just one state over, had been concerned about consumers opting for their Texas cousins and ended up enlisting the aid of Abramoff, the fedora-topped lobbyist later sentenced to nearly six years for conspiracy and tax evasion in 2006.

While secretly disparaging the Native Americans as “stupid mofos,” “monkeys” and “fucking troglodytes,” Abramoff used Christian connections in Texas to mobilize anti-casino forces. Through shell corporations and blatant corruption — Abramoff and his partner are believed to have received a total of $85 million from their Indian clients — the lobbyist managed to muster enough opposition to shutter the casinos of both the Alabama-Coushatta and El Paso’s Tigua tribe in 2002. Less than a year in, the Alabama-Coushatta’s best modern opportunity for self-sustenance collapsed.

With equal parts gall and venality, Abramoff then approached the Alabama-Coushatta with an offer to restore their casino but was found out before he could swindle more Native-American money.

“It was devastating,” Williams says, his voice moving slowly through the subsequent drop-off. “Everyone could see what was possible — at the time, when we were open, we were one of the highest-paying employers here in the surrounding area.”

A visitor asks Williams about Abramoff, but the chairman claims the name provokes no reaction on the reservation. Nobody brings him up. No one thinks about him. But it’s Abramoff’s work — his choice to blinker both Texas legislators and tribes — that ended the only casino the Alabama-Coushatta have ever known. It was Abramoff’s slimeball politics that forced the Alabama-Coushatta to revert once more to smoke shops and land cultivation as their sole, and depreciating, sources of income. It was Abramoff’s grease-stained fingerprints, his choice to skim the profits and to try to lobby both for and against the tribe’s casino, that directed Williams and his people back onto Washington’s dole.

That was more than a decade ago. In the interim, the tribe, which sued Abramoff and settled out of court in 2007, has sunk nearly $3 million into attempting to change the federal language prohibiting its casino.

See here, here, and here for more on that story. One person that was prominently involved in screwing the Alabama-Coushatte tribe but who wasn’t mentioned in the Press piece is longtime religious right mouthpiece Ralph Reed. Reed has maintained a fairly low profile in recent years, but lowlifes like him never truly go away. It’s important to remember just how awful a person he and his cronies are and were. Be that as it may, between the Congressional action and the better-than-I’d-have-thought prospects in the Lege, this could finally be the year the Alabama-Coushatta get the opportunity that had been denied them. I remain ambivalent about gambling, but I do wish them the best of luck.

The federal option for gambling expansion in Texas

There is a way to expand gambling in Texas without going through the Legislature.

For decades the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe fought hard to make the federal government acknowledge that it illegally developed more than 5 million acres of the tribe’s aboriginal land.

The East Texas tribe eventually won when a court said Congress owed the tribe $270 million in compensation.

But now in an extraordinary move, the tribe’s leaders say they will forgo the gigantic sum of money and forget the past if allowed to open a casino to secure their future.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, and Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, introduced legislation this month to amend the tribe’s federal recognition to include the gaming rights allowed hundreds of other Native American governments, but under one important condition: Alabama-Coushatta drops claim to the $270 million in damages a federal court recommended U.S. Congress pay in 2002 and another land-based lawsuit filed last year.

“Nobody pounded us and said, ‘This is what you’re going to do,’ ” said Andy Taylor, an attorney for the tribe. “The tribe is saying, ‘We’re this serious.’ We are willing to forget 200 years of mistreatment. All we want is economic independence.”

At times pausing to fight back tears, members of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council said securing an economic mechanism to move the tribe away from dependency on quick-to-change and slow-to-grow federal appropriations cinched the difficult decision to draft what they see as a generous compromise, catch-all bill.

“With the sequestration and the situation of the federal government, we understand they don’t have $270.6 million to give to an individual tribe,” said Kyle Williams, tribal council chairman. “If we have to go after each individual issue, it would never happen and we would still be pursuing these issues 20 years from now.”

The tribe opened a casino in 2001, but a court order shut it down the next year. This bill could remove the obstacle that led to the closing of that casino. The tribe would still be limited as to what kind of games they could offer, pending action from the Legislature, but they would be able to have a casino, which would undoubtedly help them make a lot of money. The one thing that I’m curious about that wasn’t addressed in the story was what the other gambling interests in Texas think about this. I suppose if the bill in question begins to gain traction, we’ll find out.

CLC gambling update

Today there will be committee hearings on various gambling-related bills. I am reprinting here an email sent by Suzii Paynter of the Christian Life Coalition, which is one of the leading organizations that are fighting the expansion of gambling in Texas, as it has a pretty good summary of what has gone on so far.

Casino Hearing

On Wednesday, April 8, the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures will hear all the major gambling bills filed in the House this session. There are 16 gambling related bills currently on the notice of hearing which can be found here. This hearing is sure to draw the most vocal gambling proponents from all segments of the casino industry. We think it is important that the committee hear the other side of the argument as well. The CLC will be at the hearing to offer testimony. This is an entirely new committee made up of members who may not know this issue. It is important that they know people out in the state care about the issue and are paying attention. If your representative sits on this committee it would be an excellent time to let them know you oppose the expansion of gambling in Texas. A list of the committee members and their contact information can be found here.

The CLC recently completed a comprehensive newsletter outlining our most important arguments against the expansion of predatory gambling and in support of our current family-friendly economy. You can view the newsletter here (large PDF).

First Gambling Bills Voted Out of Committee

On the same afternoon that the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee announced the agenda for Wednesday’s hearing, they quietly passed out two gambling expansion bills. Both bills now sit in the Calendars committee and await a chance to be considered on the House floor.

The first bill is HB 222, by Rep. Menendez (D-San Antonio). This bill would legalize poker to be played at electronic tables in certain bars, restaurants, horse and dog race tracks and on Indian reservations. The proponents claim that only simple majorities in both the House and Senate are needed to pass this bill. It is the opinion of the CLC, based on previous opinions offered by the Attorney General, that the element of chance inherent in this card game requires a constitutional amendment and the support of 2/3rds of the House and Senate. Additionally, the electronic facsimile of a game of chance makes this a Class III game as described under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). As other states have experienced, and according to IGRA, the approval of a Class III game in Texas will lead to the expansion of Native American gambling in Texas above and beyond what is contemplated in this bill and in a way that weakens the state’s ability to control further casino expansion.

The second bill is HB 1474 by Rep. Geren (R- Ft. Worth). This bill is meant to be a “clean up” bill to standardize and improve the regulation of Bingo in Texas. However, the bill also greatly increases the number and type of organizations that are eligible to receive a bingo license. The CLC is concerned that bingo in this state is moving far beyond the original public understanding of the game and that the charitable purpose is being watered down. Specifically, during the legislative interim period after last session, the lottery commission approved new bingo games which would allow versions of electronic pull tab bingo as well as a type of Keno. We are concerned that these new games could lead to a rapid expansion of electronic casino-style games. This threat is even more possible with the broadening of organizations eligible to apply for a license stated in HB 1474.

The list of members on the Calendars Committee can be found here. If your representative is member of this committee, let them know that the best way to defeat these bills is to never allow a vote on the House floor.

Indian Gambling Bills Get Hearing

On Monday, March 30, two Native-American casino bills by Rep. Chavez (D-El Paso) were heard in committee. The first bill, HB 1308 was heard in the subcommittee on Criminal Procedure of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

The CLC testified in opposition to this bill. HB 1308 would give a defense to prosecution for Indian tribes that conduct otherwise illegal casino gambling operations. The bill is the exact same piece of legislation which failed to pass the House last session. According to Rep. Chavez and other supporters, the bill would simply allow two tribes, the Tigua of El Paso and the Alabama-Coushatta of Livingston to reopen illegal casinos that were shut down several years ago. While sympathetic to the desperate conditions on these two reservations, the Christian Life Commission opposes this piece of legislation because we believe that the consequences of passage may be far more expansive than what proponents are indicating.

HB 1308 does not improve the legal standing of gambling by the Texas tribes bound by the Restoration Act. The state has never used criminal charges to shut down illegal Native-American casinos. The state has the right to sue the tribe in federal court and seek injunctive relief. This is how the casinos were closed in the past and the bill cannot prevent the state from closing any casino opened by the Tigua or Alabama-Coushatta. The gambling activity the tribes seek to conduct is not just an illegal violation of the penal code that this bill amends; it is UNCONSTITUTIONAL according to the Texas Constitution. A statute passed by a simple legislative majority cannot trump the state constitution. While it may preclude criminal penalties the state may still seek to have any operating casino shut down in federal civil court. The bill is an attempt to expand gambling by a simple majority vote in the legislature rather than the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment. The end result of this bill would likely be more costly litigation on the part of the state in federal court.

Additionally, the vague language in the bill would actually open a legal loophole to Native-American tribes that are 1) named in the list of tribes referenced in the bill, 2) which have historic, recognized land ties to Texas and 3) are not bound by the Restoration Act. The list of tribes referenced in the bill includes over 300 tribes from across the country, several of whom have entered into agreements with state agencies acknowledging “historic property” in Texas. There are currently letters of intent to petition for recognition on file with the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 10 tribes seeking recognition in Texas.

The members of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee should hear from those opposed to this bill so that it is defeated in committee. A link to the committee and their contact info can be found here.

That afternoon, the House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs heard testimony on HJR 108. This Joint Resolution proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the Tigua tribe of El Paso to operate a full blown, Las Vegas style casino. The CLC testified in opposition to this bill as well. Any constitutional amendment which would allow Class III gambling as defined under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) would be a “trigger” for further Native-American casinos beyond what is authorized in this resolution. It is impossible to authorize gambling for only one tribe without affecting the rights of other tribes in this state. As has been the case in other states, once the Class III threshold is crossed, the state loses much of the ability to control casino expansion since many of the decisions will be made on the federal level.

A link to the members of the Border and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee can be found here.

A news report of these two hearings can be found here.

To learn more about HB 1308 and the history of Native-American gambling in Texas see here (PDF).

Couple things. First, as you know, I support HB222. Of all the various gambling expansion options I’ve seen, allowing for poker seems to me to be the most sensible and least potentially harmful. Plus, as a bridge player who has had the chance to play for money legally, I think poker is a legitimate game of skill and should be treated as such. In fact, poker players in Pennsylvania and South Carolina recently won court rulings that agreed poker is a game of skill. As such, it’s not clear to me that the AG’s opinion would agree with the CLC about the inherent level of chance here. Of course, I Am Not A Lawyer, and Lord only knows what Greg Abbott will do. The point is that recent legal history is on the poker players’ side. I welcome any feedback on that question, and on the other legal points raised, by anyone who has more expertise on the topic.

Second, you can’t talk about the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta tribes and the litigation over their past attempts to open casinos without noting that a lot of the opposition to them has come from out of state Indian tribes and casinos, who have an obvious interest in minimizing their competition, and that along the way some really sleazy double-dealing was done by former Christian Coalition honcho Ralph Reed and Tom DeLay’s felonious friend Jack Abramoff. Here’s some previous blogging on the subject, plus a couple of corrected links to Observer articles to give you the background.

Finally, just to reiterate, outside of HB222, I am officially agnostic on the subject of expanded gambling in Texas. I have plenty of issues with it, and I may wind up voting against any future ballot propositions to allow for more gambling, but I am not comfortable being opposed to the idea. I thought this email was informative and worth highlighting, but please don’t take that as an endorsement, because it’s not intended as one.