Oklahoma AG wants federal ruling on tribal casino

By Ziva Branstetter
Tahlequah, Oklahoma (AP) June 2011

Attorney General Scott Pruitt wants to know why it has taken federal officials more than five years to decide an issue they have already decided once.

In a May 17 letter to the National Indian Gaming Commission, Pruitt asks why the commission has taken “an inordinate amount of time” to rule on whether the United Keetoowah Band’s Tahlequah casino sits on Indian land.

Federal law contains multiple requirements tribes must meet to operate a casino. In court filings, the state has argued that the tribe has not met those requirements.

The tribe does not have a compact with the state to operate its casino. Such compact fees from 30 tribes brought the state $118 million last fiscal year.

“Since the establishment of the facility in 1991, the State of Oklahoma and the federal government have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees owed to our taxpayers for this operation,” Pruitt’s letter states.

He notes that state gaming compact fees go to fund education and the casino generates up to $13 million annually.

“None of the operation’s Class III gaming revenue helps our children reach their potential.”

The tribe’s attorney general fired back in a letter three days later, calling Pruitt’s statements “misinformation.”

The letter from Keetoowah Attorney General Kennis Bellmard states the tribe has been trying to gain a compact with the state for years and is “prepared to immediately open discussions” for such an agreement. The letter states that the tribe does not offer Class III games at its casino and thus would not owe fees to the state.

Pruitt’s letter and the tribe’s response follow a Tulsa World story outlining more than a decade of bureaucratic delays in the casino case. The tribe opened the casino in 1991 but the commission did not seek to determine whether the casino was on Indian land, as required by federal law, until May 25, 2000.

In a letter that year to the tribe, the gaming commission concluded that the casino land failed to meet the test and was not on Indian land. Then-Cherokee County District Judge John Garrett issued an injunction preventing the state of Oklahoma from “enforcing any purported gaming violations ... until such time that a final order is entered.” That injunction still stands.

On Jan. 6, 2007, the tribe thanked Garrett “for his action in allowing our casino to remain open,” meeting minutes show. The tribe hired Garrett, who did not run for re-election as district judge, to replace its existing Supreme Court judge.

The state filed a motion to move the casino case to federal court. A federal judge ruled in 2006 that the National Indian Gaming Commission had neglected to conduct a thorough review. He ordered the agency to further investigate the matter and issue a final decision on whether the casino was on Indian land.

In the five years since that ruling, the gaming commission has not entered a final decision. “The extraordinary delay in the NIGC’s decision-making process is not without serious consequences,” Pruitt’s letter states.

“The state, therefore, for over five years has been precluded either from shutting down or otherwise protecting its citizens from what it considers an illegal gaming operation; or in the unlikely event the operation is deemed on `Indian land,’ from obtaining substantial revenues from Class III gaming operations to be used for the education of our children.”

But Bellmard’s letter notes that the NIGC did regulate the casino after it opened.

“Without any forewarning, the NIGC reversed its long-held position and concluded that it could not regulate the Keetoowah’s gaming operations,” his letter states.