- Associated Press - Sunday, May 4, 2014

EL PASO, Texas (AP) - After losing a long court battle with the state, the Tigua Indians closed their Speaking Rock Casino outside El Paso in 2002, leaving the Kickapoo tribe with the only legal gambling hall in Texas.

So one might wonder what’s going on these days at the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center.

Gamblers pack Speaking Rock day and night, feeding greenbacks into beeping, flashing gaming machines. And while the tribe calls it a legal sweepstakes operation, the state says it is a prohibited casino.

Once more, the on-again-off-again legal fight that began two decades ago is back in court.

“This is in fact an illegal gambling operation,” Assistant Attorney General William Deane said at a March 10 federal court hearing in El Paso.

In 1999, when George W. Bush was governor, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn sued the Tiguas, claiming the tribe’s bustling casino violated state law. The Tiguas had agreed to not have gambling as a condition of receiving federal recognition in 1987.

The casino did close, only to soon reopen in a different form.

At last month’s hearing, the attorney general’s office pressed for a contempt ruling against the tribe, claiming that it continues to defy state law and court orders.

“We’re going to show it is in violation of the injunction,” Deane told U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone.

Tribal lawyer Dolph Barn-house wasted no time in attacking the state’s evidence, gathered in part by covert visits made to Speaking Rock in 2012 by state police who played the machines and filmed video.

“We have individuals for the state going onto a federal enclave and conducting an undercover operation that flies in the face of this court’s order and civil procedure,” Barn-house asserted. “My client is a sovereign nation with rights of sovereignty immunity, and those can only be waived by Congress under special circumstances.”

For the tribe, the outcome of this latest skirmish could be critical. The forced closing of the casino in 2002 cost hundreds of jobs and the tribe’s main source of income.

The renamed Speaking Rock Entertainment Center and a second gaming hall in nearby Socorro now provide 75 percent of the tribe’s income and 300 jobs, according to one tribal official.

After consulting with the lawyers, Cardone set the matter for a full airing in October.

Referring to the long legal siege, as “20 years of wrangling,” she made it clear that in her opinion, State of Texas vs. Ysleta del Sur Pueblo et al, has gone on long enough.

“I want this case to end,” she said before adjourning.

Even as the lawyers were jousting at the federal courthouse in downtown El Paso, some 12 miles to the east on the Tigua reservation, the parking lots around the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center were rapidly filling.

In the darkened interior, hundreds of players were trying their luck at seductive, brightly colored machines with names like “Hot n Saucy,” ”Irish Gold” and “Jackpot 50,000,” all under the watchful eyes of blue-shirted security personnel.

On first impression, there was little to distinguish the current Speaking Rock from its casino heyday when it offered Class II gaming, including machines and poker.

The statue of the golden plumed warrior still stands guard out front. Inside, cashiers behind brass bars are busy doling out cash to winners.

The most notable difference is the peculiar message that appears almost everywhere, even on television screens. It thanks patrons for their “donations,” which, it informs, support “tribal health care, public safety, veterans services, education, elder care” and so on.

Also on the walls are the rules for “donation sweepstakes,” and some of the machines are labeled “Sweepstakes.”

While the state claims that Speaking Rock is just a thinly disguised casino, the tribe is advancing a complicated argument - based on nuances of state law and intricacies of gaming software - that seeing is not believing.

In fact, the tribe claims that this is a legal operation, similar to those held at VFW halls, in which people make voluntary donations to play and are not required to buy anything.

“The attorney general doesn’t like sweepstakes, and they don’t like the fact that they are permissible in Texas, as anyone who has gone to a McDonald’s knows,” said lawyer Barnhouse, referring to the peel-off games offered there.

Tribal Lt. Gov. Carlos Hisa used a sports car analogy to make the point.

“When you look at a beautiful car, you think it’s a Ferrari, but when you open the hood, you see it’s got a Ford engine. It’s what’s inside that determines it,” he told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1nK8gBI).

“The tribe is confident that what we are doing is legal, and we’ll pursue it to the end,” said Hisa, who is one of the named defendants in the lawsuit.

The state, however, said its undercover probe in 2012 found otherwise.

“It was clear that all the customers observed were there to gamble for cash and not to simply make cash donations,” reads the motion for contempt.

At its peak, the Speaking Rock Casino employed more than 700 people and was pumping $5 million a month into tribal coffers. But that all changed dramatically when it closed after the state prevailed in court.

The Tiguas’ engagement of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who promised he could pull strings in Washington to get the casino reopened, ended in disaster. The Tiguas got nothing for the $4.2 million they paid him, and Abramoff later served prison time for his crimes.

The Tiguas have since struggled to find another golden goose, offering various other types of entertainment and gaming that skirted the prohibition.

“When the casino was here, our resources were unlimited. Now we’re living within a budget,” Hisa said, adding that the tribe has hardly been idle in the years since.

In 2010, Harvard University recognized the Tiguas’ economic development strategy as one of the best in the country. The plan was created in a collaborative effort between the tribe and the University of Texas at El Paso’s Institute for Policy and Economic Development.

Two years later, the tribe opened a second “entertainment center,” in nearby Soccoro that provides free concerts to the public with easy access to the adjacent game rooms.

Income from the two entertainment centers has generated matching funds for $24 million in grants, according to the tribe.

The Tiguas also have built more than 100 brown stucco homes for their members, and the tribe cannot keep up with the demand.

“We still have a huge waiting list of over 300 for housing,” Hisa said.

Beyond operating the entertainment centers, the Tiguas have diversified into other ventures, some of which rely on government contracts. They include an oil and lubricant business, a construction company and a smoke shop.

The tribe also owns a minor league baseball team, the El Paso Diablos, and helped remodel the city-owned stadium, which it makes available to charitable events, including the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

It also offers an after-school literacy program for tribal youths, a tribal library and a strict truancy program that it boasts has resulted in a graduation rate of 82 percent, compared with 71 percent for the El Paso region.

Since a change in the law in 2011, allowing the Tiguas to decide who is a tribal member, enrollment is expected to soar. This will only further aggravate the housing shortage.

But as long as the lawsuit continues and there is uncertainty about the revenue stream from the two “entertainment centers,” Hisa said the tribe cannot pursue longterm development plans.

“Right now, our goals are all short term. We’d like to be in a situation where we can plan,” he said.

And where years ago the Tiguas were often confrontational with the state, they have adopted a more conciliatory tone.

“We’re not here to work against the state. We want to negotiate a solution that will be beneficial to everyone,” Hisa said.

Noting that more than 250 other tribes around the country offer gambling, he said, “All we want is parity.”

Standing in front of the Socorro Entertainment Center is a bronze statue of longtime tribal leader “Cacique Santos Sanchez,” bedecked in a fringed shirt and holding a long-stemmed pipe.

“The people need a place to live, and for me this is the most important thing,” reads the inscription in Spanish.

And thanks to gaming, the Tiguas, like so many other tribes, have climbed out of poverty and acquired significant real estate, including a 70,000-acre ranch near Valentine.

At 8 a.m. on a weekday, two hours before opening, people were already trickling into the entertainment center. As they arrived, each was given a green wrist band and directed to a line forming behind the building.

“I come every day if I can with my cousin. There’s no other entertainment in Socorro. There’s nothing to do,” said Ignacia Piñon, 64, a local resident.

The main incentive, it turned out, is that the house provides a $10 voucher to all who arrive before 10 a.m. And with individual plays on some machines costing as little as 9 cents, it’s cheap entertainment.

“I spend $5 or $10 a day, and with the promotions, I can play for three or four hours,” Piñon said. “I usually win $15 or $20.”

The gaming hall is connected to a large arena that once had an Olympic-sized pool, paid for with proceeds from the Speaking Rock Casino but unaffordable after the place shut down.

So, the Tiguas filled it in and began holding free concerts there. Markings showing pool depths are still visible on the tile floor.

The venue can hold 8,000 or more people, with its side doors opened, and well-known artists and groups such as Godsmack, Pepe Aguilar, Korn, and Café Tacuba have played there.

Sometimes, the Tiguas show sporting events there on the large-screen television, also free to the public. And while free admittance sounds like an odd business plan, many of the attendees visit the adjacent gaming hall.

As opening time approached, almost 300 people were waiting on folding chairs in the concert hall, playing with their cellphones or watching a Mexican soap opera on the large screens. Most were regulars and knew the drill.

“There’s no donation. It’s free. They give you $10 in a voucher every time. I could come broke and still play,” said Sergio Flores, 25, of El Paso, who had only $2 in his pocket.

“When we buy our food, they give us $7 back in vouchers to play,” he added.

Finally, at 10 a.m. they began entering in clutches of 10 to 12, each person filling out a “Sweepstakes Free Entry Form” and handing over a driver’s license, which were copied together. In exchange, each received the vouchers.

Most players also grabbed a free coffee and a donut before settling down in front of a machine to begin playing games such as “Mushroom Mania” and “Dynamite Diamonds.”

Flores planned to stay until he had spent his free vouchers, then go over to the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center and play some more on the $5 voucher given out there.

“It’s a good thing, especially because of the concerts and everything. We have a good time,” he said.

Although she couldn’t quite say how, Piñon said the Tiguas are clearly benefiting.

“It’s good for the tribe, and we’re very happy to have them here,” she said.

The Tiguas came to El Paso with the Spaniards fleeing an Indian revolt in New Mexico in the late 17th century and have occupied land east of the city for centuries. However, their service to the Spaniards and later the Anglos as loyal Indian scouts was soon forgotten.

As longtime tribal lawyer Tom Diamond, 90, tells the story, the Tiguas were left to their own devices, and by the mid-20th century, were struggling to survive.

“They fell through the cracks, and the government stopped worrying about them,” he said.

“The Anglos never saw them as a distinct population of Indians. And they were masked by the Mexican population, which did not see them as very different, because the Mexican population is part Indian,” he added.

When Diamond first encountered the Tiguas in 1965, they were in desperate shape.

“They had received no help, assistance, benefits or recognition since 1850. They were on their own, and things were getting dramatically bad,” he said.

“All their homes were in tax foreclosure. I couldn’t find anyone who had ever graduated from high school. The kids wouldn’t go to school because they didn’t have shoes,” he added.

As Diamond took up the tribe’s cause, he first turned to the federal government seeking tribal recognition. But he soon was frustrated by its unwillingness to even consider it.

“I got nowhere with the feds. I was told, ‘The policy right now is termination of recognition,’ ” he recalled. Eventually, he persuaded important Texas officials to step into the breach.

“I was Democratic county chairman at the time, so I had good connections with (U.S. Sen.) Ralph Yarborough, Gov. John Connally and Attorney General Crawford Martin. I started lobbying the state for recognition,” he recalled.

Eventually, a plan was hatched in which Texas would recognize the Tiguas and the federal government would transfer trust responsibility to the state.

“In 1967, they got state recognition with federal approval,” he said.

Two decades later, when the state started running short of money and federal attitudes toward American Indians had improved, oversight of the Tiguas was transferred back to the federal government in the Restoration Act of 1987.

And while it won the tribe recognition, the bill included a caveat that still haunts them.

“They put a clause in there that no one paid any attention to because Indian gambling wasn’t on the horizon. It prohibited the Indians from being involved in any gaming activities not authorized by the state,” Diamond said. “And that’s why we’re in litigation now.”

Diamond, however, is optimistic that ongoing demographic and political shifts in Texas will eventually solve the Tiguas’ casino dilemma.

“There is a brown wave washing across the state, and I think that will change politics. And when that happens, I think we’ll have a good chance,” he said.

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

blog comments powered by Disqus

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide