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For a Tribe in Texas, an Era of Prosperity Undone by Politics

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/13/national/13indians.html?th&emc=th For a Tribe in Texas, an Era of Prosperity Undone by Politics Rick Scibelli Jr. for The New
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 13, 2005

      For a Tribe in Texas, an Era of Prosperity Undone by

      Rick Scibelli Jr. for The New York Times

      Published: 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.

      Proceeds from gambling helped the Tiguas build a
      fitness center, complete with an Olympic-size pool.

      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

      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

      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

      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.
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