Friday, March 19, 2004 | 9:32 a.m.
SAN DIEGO -- When a Butte County tribe wanted help opening a casino on a cow pasture 40 miles away, it turned to a retiring U.S. senator from Colorado.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell helped introduce three obscure sentences into a Native American "technical corrections" bill that helps the casino site in Yuba County become tribal land -- without mentioning the tribe's name, its location or even a word about gambling.
"If the bill were to give away the tribe's name or to specify Yuba County, we are afraid it would come to the attention of Rep. (Wally) Herger, or our other opponents ... who would demand that he stop the legislation, which he could and probably would do," tribal attorney James E. Cohen wrote last April to members of the Enterprise Rancheria.
The e-mail was provided to The Associated Press by Cheryl Schmit of Stand Up for California, an outspoken critic of tribal gambling. Cohen did not respond to several requests for comment.
The action in Yuba County is one of three instances in recent months in which California gambling tribes sought to expand the boundaries of their reservations and bypass local opposition by seeking help from Congress. Two of the sought-after projects were included in a bill that subsequently became law. The third, the Yuba County project, is included in a bill that has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
Critics charge that the tribes are using their increasing political clout to circumvent state and local laws, leaving local communities with little say over what happens on or near neighboring reservations.
"I don't think we'll ever live to see anything more corrupting than gambling as far as governance is concerned," said Robert Coffin, a lawyer advising the city of San Diego in its dispute with the Barona tribe over a water pipeline. "Who can stop it?"
Herger said he would try if language authorizing the casino in his district made it to the House.
"This isn't the way we do things in a democracy," he said. "It's like they're trying to pull the wool over a community's eyes."
The tribes' approach is legal and mirrors the actions of private corporations that appeal to members of Congress to pursue their interests.
Campbell helped the Barona tribe in its efforts to build a 1 1/2-mile pipeline to its San Diego County casino, hotel and golf course. The project was stymied when the city refused to grant the tribe's request to waive environmental review of the pipeline project. The city found the tribe's water shortage wasn't an emergency.
But Campbell's little-noticed bill, signed into law by President Bush this month, turns 85 acres of the pipeline's path into tribal land, allowing the tribe to skirt state environmental laws.
Local officials were unaware of the legislation until it passed.
"It wasn't done under cover of darkness," said David Baron, the tribe's director of government affairs. "At no time was Barona hiding the fact that it wanted to take the land into trust."
The tribe also tried unsuccessfully last year to have a state senator who had a close relationship with a tribe lobbyist pass a bill that would have exempted the pipeline project from some environmental regulations. The effort was abandoned when word of the bill leaked to the press.
The Agua Caliente tribe of Palm Springs also benefits from a provision in Campbell's bill, which was signed March 2 by President Bush. The measure makes it easier to add land to the reservation.
Tribal Chairman Richard Milanovich said the bill is aimed at a 2-acre parcel of condemned land the tribe acquired in downtown Palm Springs. The parcel is on the site of the tribe's proposed multibillion-dollar downtown entertainment complex, which has met with local resistance.
But critics say the measure is far broader and gives the tribe limitless power to acquire land without restrictions.
"I believe they could use this language to acquire land in downtown L.A.," Schmit said. "The one mistake I don't make anymore is I don't say 'They can't do that."'
Since 2001, Indian gambling interests from across the country have given more than $9.3 million to federal candidates and political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Campbell, a Democrat-turned-Republican and the only American Indian in the Senate, has a history of advocating for tribal rights and economic development during his two terms in office.
He recently announced his retirement amid health problems and a scandal involving his longtime chief of staff, who is accused of accepting kickbacks. Calls to his Capitol Hill office seeking comment on the bills were not returned.
Two influential California Republican congressmen, Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy and Rep. Duncan Hunter of the San Diego County town of Alpine, also helped get the Barona and Agua Caliente legislation approved in the House. Both men collected contributions from tribes or their lobbyists, records show.
Nicol Andrews, a spokeswoman for Pombo, said critics were "looking for boogeymen in the closet" and noted that the bill drew no opposition for the year it took to pass both houses of Congress.
"There was not a member of Congress who opposed this legislation," she said. "If there was opposition, it was not voiced in Washington."
Pombo has accepted more than $6,750 from members of the Agua Caliente's Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, since 2003, including a $2,000 contribution from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Agua Caliente paid Greenberg Traurig more than $1.6 million since hiring them in mid-2002.
Barona donated $5,000 to Hunter's Peace Through Strength political action committee last year.
On the House floor last month, Pombo, who toured the pipeline site, said the bill was needed to help fight future fires in the area, which was devastated by October's Cedar Fire, the largest wildfire in state history. Hunter said the bill will help local residents, who have seen their wells go dry.
The tribe blames drought for its water problems, but residents point to county data and say the tribe's golf course sucked away all their water.
Frances Gesiakowski, a 62-year-old retired county worker, saw her wells dry up shortly after the sprinklers went on at the course in 2001. She now uses her Social Security income to pay to have her water trucked in to her small home near the Barona land.
"Anybody else, any public contractor, has to comply to county regulations and environmental standards," Gesiakowski said as the sun set behind the reservoir below her property. "Why shouldn't they?"
Campbell's latest bill has angered officials in Yuba County, north of Sacramento. The bill helps convert private farm land into tribal land, allowing the Enterprise Rancheria to build a casino in a more desirable location. The award would be compensation for land submerged under Lake Oroville. Members of the tribe sold that land to the state in the 1960s.
A backdoor attempt to write a casino into law is something federal lawmakers insisted would never happen again after Democratic Rep. George Miller of California pushed through a new law in 2001 for a landless Indian tribe to turn a card room across the bay from San Francisco into a casino. Four card clubs are suing to block it.
Yuba County's Board of Supervisors narrowly endorsed the casino there in 2002 after the tribe offered to pay the county $72 million over 15 years. Supervisor Dan Logue, who took office after the vote, remains opposed.
"Don't tell me there's no backdoor politics going on here," Logue said in a protest this week on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento. "The people of California are tired of casino money changing our laws."