For a Quarter of a Century the Tiqua Tribe out of the El Paso Texas area has battled the state of Texas over a casino. The tribe was granted federal recognition in 1987, along with the Alabama-Coushatta, also of Texas. But the act that granted these two tribes sovereign land did so under the provision that “gambling, lottery, or bingo, as defined by Texas’ laws, on the tribe’s reservation and on tribal lands” would be prohibited.
The timing was brutal. A year later, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which paved the way for the tribal gaming industry as we know it today.
Both tribes have been engaged in decades-long legal battles with the state to hold onto their modest gaming facilities. In contrast, the Kickapoo Tribe of Texas — recognized just two years earlier, in 1985 — has been permitted to operate its own gaming operations on the Rio Grande border with Mexico with impunity for 20 years because it is not bound by a no-gaming clause.
The Tigua and the Alabama-Coushatta have argued that they were coerced into agreeing to the Restoration Act because some members of Congress threatened to block the passage of the act unless they accepted to the no-gaming provision.
In 2015, 239 Indian tribes operated 478 casinos, high-stakes bingo halls, and other gambling facilities on Indian reservations in 28 states that collectively earned $28.5 billion in gross gaming revenue. How did Indian gambling become such a lucrative and commonplace fixture of the American landscape?
In 1979, the Mafia opened the nation’s first high-stakes Indian bingo hall on the Seminole reservation in Florida. Nine years later, Indian tribes were operating bingo halls on reservations in 23 states. Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to subject gambling on reservations to regulation by the federal government and the states in which the reservations were located. But, while members of Congress who voted for the bill didn’t intend for it to do so, the act facilitated the transformation of Indian bingo halls into what they are today—Las Vegas-style casinos whose gaming floors contain more than 352,000 video slot and other gaming machines.
In 1992 the first case of the relationship between the Mafia and Indian Casino’s surfaced. Reputed San Diego mobster Chris Petti and nine other men, including a top local defense lawyer and the alleged bosses of the Chicago mob, were named in a federal indictment charging that organized crime tried to infiltrate gambling operations at the Rincon Indian Reservation.
Petti, San Diego lawyer Nicholas De Pento, Chicago mobsters Samuel Carlisi and John (No Nose) DiFronzo and the six other men tried to take over the Rincon tribe’s gambling activities in order to skim profits and launder money.
All of the 10 had been arrested in San Diego, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Chicago and Florida on charges of racketeering, extortion, and mail and wire fraud. Convicted, they faced penalties ranging from five to 20 years’ imprisonment for each count, with fines of up to $250,000.
According to the FBI, Chicago mob leaders became interested in the Indian Casino gambling operations in the mid-1980s, viewing it both as a potential source of revenue and a means of laundering money from other illegal activities. Since then there have been numerous others.
Speaking Rock was first ordered to close in 2002 after lengthy court battles, but that ruling declared the facility could offer games that were legal in Texas, such as bingo. The Tigua reopened the property with slot-machine style games which the tribe argued were sweepstakes or bingo games that were compliant with state law.
Interesting enough the Texas Tribes long term attorneys (since the casinos began) are Petti and Briones in Phoenix Arizona. Practice areas; White Collar Criminal Defense, Regulatory Defense, Securities Law, High Profile Criminal Defense, Gaming Law and Tribal Law.
It is these games — along with the high-stakes bingo games conducted at Speaking Rock — that the court declared to be illegal last week.
U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez of El Paso issued a summary judgment on February 21, 2019 in favor of the state, which has gone to court multiple times over the past two decades in attempts to close the tribe’s popular Speaking Rock Casino. Martinez’s ruling relied heavily on past court decisions, including one by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, that state law prohibits the Tiguas from offering casino-style games.
“The court is cognizant that an injunction will have a substantial impact on the pueblo community. Accordingly, the court joins the refrain of judges who have urged the tribes bound by the Restoration Act to petition Congress to modify or replace the Restoration Act if they would like to conduct gaming on the reservation,” Martinez wrote.
Leadership and lawyers for the Tiguas, who also are known as the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who led the lawsuit against the Tiguas, praised the ruling. “Our office’s investigation provided proof that the Tribe’s activities at Speaking Rock violate Texas gaming laws and regulations. The district court’s ruling upholds federal law, halts the Tribe’s illegal activity, and allows Texas to maintain the crucial ability to enforce its laws,” spokesman Marc Rylander said.
Speaking Rock Casino continued to operate on Friday, but it’s future is uncertain. Martinez said he would issue an injunction on gaming activity, but was still weighing its scope. “As the tribe has noted, an injunction may not simply command that a party ‘follow the law.’ Instead, an injunction must be specific and state its terms in reasonable detail. Thus, the court invites each party to submit a proposed permanent injunction for the court’s consideration by March 1, 2019. Thereafter, the court will consider the submissions, if any, and enter an injunction regarding the Tribe’s operations.”
Ysleta del Sur Pueblo
(also Tigua Pueblo) is a Puebloan Native American tribal entity in the Ysleta section of El Paso, Texas. Its members are Southern Tiwa people who had been displaced from Spanish New Mexico in 1680-1681 during the Pueblo Revolt against the Spaniards.
In Spanish the people and language are called Tigua (pronounced tiwa). They have maintained a tribal identity and lands in Texas. Spanish replaced the indigenous language in the early 1900s, and today, English is increasingly gaining ground in the community.
For almost 40 years the Pueblo has owned and operated tribal businesses that provide employment for its members and the El Paso community. These businesses include the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center, Big Bear Oil Co., Inc., and the Tigua Indian Cultural Center. The tribe employs approximately 500 individuals.
As part of the Indian termination policy followed by the federal government from the 1940s through the 1960s, the Tigua became the last tribe formally terminated. On 12 April 1968, under Public Law 90–287 82 Stat. 93 the United States Congress relinquished all responsibility for the Tiwa Indians of Ysleta, Texas to the State of Texas. The Tiwa Indians Act specified that tribal members would be ineligible for any services, claims or demands from the United States as Indians.[
Public Law 100-89, 101 STAT. 666 was enacted 18 August 1987 and restored the federal relationship with the tribe simultaneously with those of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe. The restoration act renamed the tribe to the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, repealed the Tiwa Indians Act, and specifically prohibited all gaming activities prohibited by the laws of the state of Texas.[
The legislation of the United States Congress restored eligibility to receive services from the federal government to this group, the southernmost tribe of the Pueblo peoples. In addition, the state of Texas recognized the tribe. Two other tribes in Texas also have federal and state recognition, while an additional two tribes have state recognition only. In April 2008, the Tribal Census Department reported 1,615 enrolled members.[
The House that Jack Built
Back in 2002, the tribe was defrauded by notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff of $4.2 million. Abramoff told the tribe he could get Congress to approve their gaming operations, but at the same time he was also lobbying Texas lawmakers to oppose Tigua gaming. He was sentenced to six years in prison for scamming the Tigua, along with several other Native American tribes, serving 43 months.
In 2015 the Texas tribes (who casino was shut down) after being targeted by convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and several lawmakers settled a racketeering lawsuit against Abramoff’s former law firm.
The law firm, Greenberg Traurig, wasn’t named in the federal lawsuit filed by the Alabama-Coushatta tribe against Abramoff, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and their associates. But tribe attorney Fred Petti said the settlement resolved things with all parties. Terms weren’t disclosed.
“We are satisfied with the settlement and are pleased to have the Abramoff matter resolved,” JoAnne Battise, the tribe’s chairwoman, said in a statement. “We are now focused on restoring our right to game so that we may create employment and business opportunities for us and our neighbors in the surrounding region.”
Announcement of the settlement came the day before the Texas House was to consider a bill that would have opened the door for the Alabama-Coushatta and Tigua tribes to conduct Class 2 gaming – such as pull tab and electronic bingo or games with prizes – on reservation land. Right now, only the Kickapoo tribe of Eagle Pass can legally run a casino in Texas. The bill was rejected. The state offered to consider class 2 gaming provided the tribe gave a percentage of profits which they refused.
Abramoff has been cooperating with the government after pleadings guilty in January 2006 to conspiracy, mail fraud and other charges admitting to bilking his Indian tribe clients out of tens of millions of dollars with promises to influence the decisions of Congress and the Interior Department.
The Alabama-Coushatta became entangled in the Abramoff scandal as Abramoff tried to drum up business from another tribal client, the Louisiana Coushatta, whose members are related to the Alabama-Coushatta.
The Alabama-Coushatta alleged in the lawsuit the defendants defrauded them, the people of Texas and the Legislature to “line their pockets with money” and benefit the Louisiana Coushatta tribe.
Abramoff told the Louisiana Coushatta that the Alabama-Coushatta’s casino, on its reservation near Houston, was competing for clients. He enlisted the help of Reed to launch opposition to the Alabama-Coushatta’s casino.
Several Texas Republican members of Congress, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, signed a letter demanding the Justice Department shut down the casino. It was closed in 1999 when a federal court ruled on a lawsuit brought by John Cornyn, then the state’s attorney general. Cornyn is now a Republic U.S. senator.
The Alabama-Coushatta had alleged that Abramoff and others conspired to defeat a bill in the 2001 Texas Legislature that would have allowed it to operate gaming on its reservation. Reed helped to rally Christians against the bill with a group he formed, Committee Against Gambling, the tribe alleged. The Alabama-Coushatta casino case will be heard later this year in Federal Court.