- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2018

When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown opposed the idea of a small Indian casino for the Coquille Tribe in 2016, she told the Bureau of Indian Affairs that she believed it “essential that the state ‘hold the line’ in the number of casinos within her border.”

The bowling alley in Medford near Interstate 5 that the Coquille wanted to use for electronic bingo machines could spell big trouble, Ms. Brown argued.

“I believe the state should, as a matter of policy, resist the building of additional casinos because state support for even a single, modest, additional casino is likely to lead to significant efforts to expand gaming across Oregon to the detriment of the public welfare,” she declared in an April 2016 letter.

Two years later, casino expansion no longer bothers the governor so much.

Indeed, Ms. Brown’s administration has reached an agreement with the Cow Creek Tribe, which has poured at least $115,000 into her political war chest, to expand gambling in a kind of joint venture between Oregon and the Indians, records show.

Ms. Brown took $5,000 of that money while visiting the Cow Creek’s Seven Feathers casino resort on a stay she billed to taxpayers four months before writing her letter. In the years since, her calendar is dotted with meetings and phone calls leading up to a nondisclosure agreement that the Oregon Lottery signed with the Cow Creek last March.

That agreement regards the installation of state gambling operations in an I-5 truck stop across the highway from Seven Feathers, lottery officials acknowledge.

“There’s a lot of hypocrisy coming out of the governor’s office there,” said Scott Crowell, a Washington state lawyer who specializes in Indian gambling issues. “It makes no sense for her to say she doesn’t want to expand gambling when they’re going to turn around with Cow Creek and promote gambling. I guess she’s willing to look the other way when it’s a major campaign contributor involved.”

As part of its “Growth Strategy and 3-Year Roadmap,” the Oregon Lottery is exploring “tribal partnerships,” according to documents reviewed by The Washington Times.

“Specifically, we are determining the feasibility of offering scratch tickets, jackpot games and keno at a travel center operated by the Cow Creek Tribe,” lottery spokesman Matthew Shelby told The Times. “We are still exploring the profitability of this collaborative effort. It’s more complex than bringing on a nontribal travel center, as federal Indian gaming laws come into play.”

In addition, Mr. Shelby said, the state is mulling a partnership with a *tribe to run a kind of sportsbook joint venture as Oregon considers even more gambling initiatives.

Coquille Tribe members are stunned that the governor put the kibosh on their plan only to turn around and do virtually the same thing with a bigger, richer tribe.

“This is just another example of the governor’s hypocrisy on tribal gaming,” said Brenda Meade, chairperson of the Coquille Indian Tribal Council. “She preaches about opposing casino proliferation. Meanwhile, her administration is scheming to increase the money flowing to the lottery and her favorite tribe.”

Mr. Shelby said he could not speak for the governor’s office in terms of its supposed opposition to more gambling, but he described the Cow Creek Tribe arrangement as baby steps, not an exclusive deal.

“The Cow Creek travel center is essentially a case study to determine if a tribal partnership can be mutually beneficial,” he said. “Any model we would implement with Cow Creek would be available to the other tribes in Oregon.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this year in Murphy v. NCAA threw open the possibility of states allowing sports betting, several of them have taken steps toward doing so. In Oregon’s case, Mr. Shelby said, the state would like to keep the contract for running such a potentially lucrative operation in-state, and this was the purpose behind broaching the topic with the Cow Creek Tribe.

The lottery’s three-year road map calls for expansion with other tribes in year two, but Coquille Tribe officials noted that the plan is already into its second year and no other tribes have been approached.

Judy Duffy-Metcalf, chief executive of the Coquille’s economic development arm, said she had no doubt that all nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon would like to have partnered with the state in any expansion of lottery games or new gambling ventures.

Like Ms. Meade, Ms. Duffy-Metcalf attributed Oregon’s choice of Cow Creek to the governor’s close relationship with that tribe and its financial support of Ms. Brown, who is seeking re-election next month.

“Why weren’t all Oregon tribes included in this conversation, instead of just the one that makes big campaign contributions?” Ms. Meade asked.

Neither Chris Pair, the governor’s communications director, nor Kate Kondayen, her press secretary, responded to requests for comment from The Times on this article.

Cow Creek CEO Michael Rondeau also didn’t respond to a request for comment sent to the tribe.

The Cow Creek Tribe has been making contributions to Ms. Brown’s campaigns since August 2008, records show. From that date to 2016, the tribe made several contributions ranging from $2,500 to $10,000.

But since Ms. Brown became governor in 2015, taking over from John Kitzhaber, who resigned amid an ethics scandal, the tribe has stepped up its support, giving Ms. Brown at least $85,000. Records show most of that came in three contributions of $25,000 each. Oregon does not have caps on the amount of contributions to candidates’ campaigns.

Indian gambling concerns have become political issues far beyond Oregon. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts ignited a spat among her Democratic colleagues in neighboring Rhode Island when she worked on behalf of a new Indian casino in Massachusetts. Feuds have erupted over new casinos and market shares of existing casinos in myriad states.

The Cow Creek Tribe are major players in Washington, D.C., too, having made $633,550 in contributions to primarily Democratic federal candidates since 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The tribe has spent another $420,000 on federal lobbying efforts, ranking it fifth nationally among Indian tribes in that category, the center’s database shows.

Ms. Brown is also a “long-term friend,” of Mr. Rondeau, according to emails arranging meals and meetings between the two. The governor’s calendar includes meetings and phone calls with Mr. Rondeau and Cow Creek officials from April 2016 to the signing of the nondisclosure agreement in March.

The Coquille Tribe would like to put the bowling alley land — a parcel of less than 2 acres — into trust with the federal government, a necessary step for the implementation of gambling on that land. That decision is up to the Department of the Interior, so Ms. Brown’s approval on the matter is not strictly needed, but federal officials traditionally seek input from state and local leaders on the plan.

As it stands, the Cow Creek Tribe has a virtual monopoly on the heavily traveled I-5 corridor. The Coquille Tribe runs a full-fledged casino in Oregon’s North Bend, but the Medford location off the interstate is part of the five-county area in which the tribe is incorporated since its federal recognition was restored in 1989.

Chief Meade blamed the Cow Creek Tribe for spreading false stories that the Medford site would be illegal because it isn’t part of the Coquille Tribe’s 10,000-acre territory, and Ms. Duffy-Metcalf said the tribe has received phone calls from Oregon legislators who say they had been asked by the Cow Creek Tribe to criticize the Coquille’s bowling alley casino.

Profits could prove a thorny issue for any state-tribe joint venture.

The Oregon Lottery’s most profitable game is its “video lottery,” which is essentially an electronic bingo game. The state’s return is roughly 90 percent. But federal law regarding gambling on Indian land mandates that at least 60 percent of the profits go to the tribe, Mr. Crowell said, and that could make it a less-attractive proposition for the Oregon Lottery.

* (Editor’s note: An updated version of the story clarified lottery spokesman Matthew Shelby’s comment that the state is mulling a partnership with a tribe.)

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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