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July 02, 2004

Blow by Blow: FBI Indian Gaming Briefing

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Why Blow by Blow? Because sometimes you just had to have been there! But in case you weren't, we were. How lucky you must feel.

WHAT: Indian Gaming Briefing
WHERE: FBI HQ, Washington DC WHEN: June 30, 2004
WHY: We're still not sure!

OK, The Native American Times already set the scene for this BBB [Blow by Blow] by reporting on Tuesday that the briefing to announce "the establishment of the Indian Gaming Working Group [IGWG] and the proactive measures in place to investigate this $15 billion gaming problem" didn't quite jibe with reality. It sounded like something government officials put together to show they were doing something for Indian Country.

We had gotten the media advisory in our inbox and were being reminded by the FBI and the NIGC to show up. But we weren't exactly thrilled about the event. [Bring two forms of ID? Does a CDIB count?] Especially since we knew NIGC member Chuck Choney had been talking about the IGWG forever. [It was created in February 2003 but here it was, nearly 17 months later, finally being announced? Hmmm.]

Our fears were solidified when we got to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., and saw former NIGC member Liz Homer and a host of Indian gaming types [read: NIGA] at the briefing. NIGA executive director Mark Van Norman pre-empted the FBI by working the few reporters who bothered to attend. He even worked those who weren't members of the media!

As for the actual briefing, it lived down to our expectations. An FBI agent named Ernie Weyand, who serves in the FBI's Indian Country Unit, kicked everything off by giving some background about the IGWG via a PowerPoint presentation.

Then NIGC member Nelson Westrin took over the PowerPoint to give some more information about the Indian gaming industry which most of us have heard before. However, he did say that tribal casino revenues for 2003 will exceed $16 billion. And he showed us this chart of revenues by region for 2001 and 2002.

After that, a retiring FBI agent named Joe Lewis, Department of Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney, U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, Christie Jacobs of the Indian Tribal Governments Office at the IRS, and Deborah Silverman, a Department of Treasury financial services director, spoke about their roles in the IGWG. They actually kept their remarks short. [The only agency missing was the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We haven't gotten an answer back on why BIA was AWOL.]

Then the floor was opened up for questions. Mark Van Norman asked the first one: Why aren't tribes up there? Later, Liz Homer made the same comment. Answer: Tribes tell us what's going on!

But it became pretty clear through additional questions, that despite Devaney's claim of "burgeoning" crime within tribal casinos, there wasn't much crime to report. FBI Agent Weyand said there were just 31 open investigations involving casino crime. Only 31 for more than 300 casinos? That seems pretty small.

In fact, the officials were pretty reluctant to give any more statistics about crime at casinos. U.S. Attorney Heffelfinger said the purpose of the IGWG was to get more data. Later, he said organized crime hasn't made inroads at tribal casinos because tribes are protective of their operations. Tell that to TIME Magazine!

Oh, yes, TIME Magazine. We thought we had heard the last of that infamous series that set tribal leaders aflame back in the winter of 2002-2003. But no, NIGC's Westrin finally spilled the beans and said that IGWG was created partly to respond to TIME! Is that the Bush administration's policy -- wait for some big media outlet to publish an expose, then react by creating a task force, working group or other entity? Say it isn't so!

Blow by Blow, it turned out to be the non-event we imagined. The Associated Press ran a story about it but didn't report on the non-existence of casino crime statistics. The Native American Times [and Liz Homer] reminded us that tribes need to be a part of the IGWG. And Indian Country Today said officials "declined to provide details" about organized crime.

Next BBB: Anti-Indian Press Conference in Washington DC on May 12? House Government Reform Committee Hearing on May 5? Your guess is as good as ours!



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