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Ralph Reed

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.

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.