Artist's rendering of the Wilton Rancheria's gaming project in Elk Grove, Ca;ifornia. Image by Wilton Rancheria
California | Opinion

Charles Banks-Altekruse: Stand up to bullying tactics of shady 'California' group



It’s time to turn the tables on casino gadfly
Demand accountability and transparency
By Charles Banks-Altekruse

The Elk Grove City Council was correct in asking hard questions of Cheryl Schmit, the director of Stand Up for California!, regarding her intervention in the proposed Wilton Rancheria casino project.

People deserve to know whether this self-proclaimed ‘statewide gaming watchdog’ is indeed independent of conflicts of interest – or merely a ‘guard dog’ for established casino tribes and card rooms, as many suspect.

Schmit’s muddled explanation of her relationship to gaming interests during the Elk Grove City Council’s February 8 session (she seemed to deny working on behalf of gaming interests, while also admitting receiving millions of dollars from them) leaves much to be explained. But this is nothing new.

For years, Schmit has walked a fine line in California gaming wars, lines so intentionally blurred that it’s difficult to decipher what she truly stands for and which side she’s on.

As far back as 2003, a Los Angeles Times article called into question Schmit’s motives and tactics and highlighted her connections to card rooms, Nevada casinos, and casino employee unions.

To anti-gambling community crusaders fighting tribal casinos, Ms. Schmit can appear to be a savior swooping in to organize and over-amplify opposition, regardless of whether such opposition is marginal or mainstream.

To an over-stretched media, Schmit is a polished and easy go-to figurehead, a convenient spokesperson and “foil” to casino proponents.

To the gaming industry, Schmit is a masterful dissembler, a stickler for the arcane technicalities of federal Indian gaming law that she deftly contorts to create unwarranted confusion and controversy – not to mention lawsuits around legitimate gaming projects.

A review of Schmit’s positions and comments over time are not clarifying: She often portrays gambling, especially “Las Vegas-style” gaming, as detrimental to communities – yet, she has openly supported and acknowledged the overall positive socio-economic impacts of her own local pet casino, Auburn Rancheria’s Thunder Valley facility, on its adopted community of Lincoln.

Schmit adamantly demands local control, support, and agreements for tribal gaming projects – yet, she has obstructed locally popular projects, sometimes parachuting in late in the process to disrupt years of careful, respectful, and collaborative negotiation between jurisdictions and prospective gaming partners.

And perhaps most cynically, Schmit rails against so-called “off-reservation” and “reservation shopping” gaming projects, a complex and rigorous process whereby “landless” tribes can apply to acquire new trust land eligible for gaming – yet she has conveniently skipped over the fact that the Auburn, Paskenta, and Mooretown tribes, backers of her campaigns against other tribal gaming projects, also moved off their historical lands.

Outside the gaming industry, Schmit has carved out a hearty reputation – and likely living – with her anti-gambling role. Insiders believe her true role is as an anti-competition shill who prevents the further expansion of gaming in California to protect the interests of established casino operations and squash competition and new market entrants. In this world, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

This may explain why Schmit now turns her attention to Wilton, a tribe that has worked hard to cooperate with local communities but poses a potential threat to Auburn’s historical dominance of the Sacramento market.

Trailing Schmit are the high-priced lobbyists, lawyers, and PR spin doctors – mercenaries who fight for and against tribes and gambling – along with the mysterious petition sponsors, misleading signature gatherers, shadow organizations, and questionable lawsuits.

Who exactly pays for such activities?

It’s time for Schmit to abide by the same standards of transparency and accountability that she demands of her adversaries, beginning with a full, open accounting of any comingling of personal, business, and nonprofit finances and transactions.

Schmit’s high-visibility public position in California’s casino wars, that she has carefully cultivated, warrants full disclosure in order to identify or eliminate all appearances of conflicts of interest. Local officials, citizens, tribes, and media deserve nothing less.

Schmit’s refusal to cooperate would be hypocritical and itself speak volumes. Should no connections to the gaming industry be found, then nothing has changed.

But if connections are established – beyond the millions in campaign donations she’s already admitted to – then Schmit’s objectivity and credibility would be impugned and her position as an independent source of information working on behalf of communities would be seriously undermined.

It’s time to stand up to the bullying tactics of Stand Up to California!

Charles Banks-Altekruse is a writer who works for Public Affairs Consulting for Native American tribes and organizations.