American Indian tribes meeting last week in Southern California say they are “fed up” with what they perceive to be the state’s inability to regulate cardrooms they contend are operating illegal games, a six-year-old dare tribes threaten will become a lawsuit.
The politically powerful tribes say they plan to opposeand other expanded gambling in the state unless and until their concerns about cardroom games and other issues are solved.
“It’s time to quit messing around with these guys,” Bo Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, said of the California Gambling Control Commission (CGCC) and its enforcement bureau, the Bureau of Gambling Control (BGC).
“Tribes need to get together, file a lawsuit and be done with it,” Mazzetti told a cheering crowd at the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) assembly at Harrah’s Resort Southern California. There were some 400 attendees.
What the cardrooms are doing now
Tyler Burtis, a BGC supervisory agent attending the conference, said the bureau “is performing, as agents, the very best job we can for the market, the tribal industry in addition to the cardroom industry.
“That’s what we’re focused on,” Burtis said of investigations and enforcement efforts tied to cheating, money laundering and other industry criminal activity.
But he declined to discuss regulatory policies on game rules and using third-party proposal player (TPPP) banking firms that are enabling cardrooms to provide high-stakes versions of blackjack, pai gow poker and what are called California/Asian table games.
“We follow orders,” he said. “My perception is that the new Attorney General (Xavier Becerra) has met with the cardroom sector in addition to tribal leaders. I am not privy to what transpired.”
Tribal leaders said Becerra told them the issue of banked games will be reviewed when a new bureau chief is appointed to replace Wayne Quint, who recently left the agency.
What to do on cardrooms moving
Meanwhile, the CGCC said it is exploring regulatory procedures to attain more financial transparency in TPPP-cardroom contracts.
Officials with Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, the CGCC and BGC last week again refused requests fromto discuss the issue.
Tribes contend the cardrooms are violating provisions in the state constitution and tribal-state compacts giving the state’s 62 tribal government casinos the exclusive right to operate banked and percentage card games.
“A number of tribes are saying, ‘time’s up,’ and considering pursuing affirmative litigation,” tribal attorney Scott Crowell said. “That is probably what will happen. Nevertheless, it’s because we are fed up.”
Tribes have “great appreciation” for Brown’s efforts on behalf of Indian tribes, Crowell said, particularly with respect to compact negotiations and financial issues.
“But on this issue, they (state officials) dropped the ball,” Crowell said. “And we can not rely upon the Brown administration to correct the circumstance. So the tribes are going to take this in to their own hands and do something about it.
“The specific form of the lawsuit … that the defendants in the suit; those things are being ironed out,” Crowell said. “But it’s going to happen.”
CNIGA principles frown on sports betting
CNIGA Chairman Steve Stallings said the group plans to “enlarge” a set of principles stating its opposition to sports wagering, in part because tribes contend regulators are allowing the state’s 87 cardroom to run banked card games in violation of the state constitution.
The principles were drafted in August following Assemblyman Adam Gray introduced legislation to amend the state constitution to permit sports wagering should thethe Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act ( ). A ruling is expected this spring.
Amending theconstitution would require a two-thirds vote of the state legislature and voters in a referendum.
CNIGA contends it is premature to consider sports betting before the nation’s highest court has ruled on the matter. Congress may enact legislation.
Lots of problems in play in California
CNIGA, composed of 34 casino and non-casino tribes, also is seeking resolution of “related issues that are currently unresolved,” list them as:
Possible legalization of
Use of TPPP banking/dealer firms in California cardrooms;
Failure of cardrooms to execute “continuous and systematic” rotation of the dealer position as required by law; and
Legislators last year tabled a Gray bill calling for legalizing DFS. Online poker was deliberated by state and tribal officials and other industry stakeholders for a couple of years.
TPPPs and dealer rotation are regulatory problems associated with cardroom games.
“It’s a fundament issue,” Stallings said of this Proposition 1A ballot initiative in 2000 that gave tribes the exclusive right to operate banking and percentage card games in California. “But equally important is the slippery slope.”
He said allowing cardrooms to run banked games along with the rising prospects of legalized sports betting, internet wagering and everyday fantasy sports could result in cardrooms evolving into casino-style surgeries, violating voter-approved limits to betting in California.
“If this proceeds,” Stallings said, “what’s the next thing that the card rooms do to enlarge gaming? The majority of the tribes are against expansion of gaming in the country.”
The debate on cardroom games is far from settled
Attorneys contend that the games are legal. But officials with the California Gambling Association and Communities for California Cardrooms, lobby groups representing the industry, decline to discuss the dispute over game rules.
Industry advocates assert banked games are legal if the cardroom utilize TPPPs. But Crowell said the constitutional amendment and previous federal court rulings on tribal gaming before Proposition 1A prohibit all banked games, not only those operated by the house, or proprietor.
Dispute termed ‘political and economic’
Cardrooms emerged in California more than a century ago as businesses offering poker games. Players wagered against each other with the cardroom operator getting a set fee, or “rake” for each hand played.
The industry has since evolved into operations employing TPPP player-banking firms allowing the businesses to offer what are called California/Asian games, or versions of blackjack, pai gow poker and baccarat similar to games offered in Nevada casinos.
State law and the Proposition 1A constitutional amendment approved by 64 percent of the respondents prohibit banked and percentage card games other than those provided by tribal governments in accordance with a tribal-state compact.
Cardrooms no longer require players engaging in California/Asian games to pay collection fees. Operators rather profit from financial arrangements with the TPPPs. They often sit at the games with stacks of chips totaling tens of thousands of dollars.
State law prohibits cardrooms from having “any interest, whether direct or indirect, in funds wagered, won or lost.”
California law also requires that the dealer position be constantly and systemically rotated among the players. The deal is rarely, if ever, rotated in California/Asian games.
The evolution of cardrooms
Game rules and regulations have enabled cardrooms to evolve into a $1 billion industry employing some 22,000 employees. Some operations have more than 250 tables with hotels and restaurant centers, providing the majority of tax revenue to several cities.
Industry advocates contend walking back CGCC and BGC regulations to comply with state law and the state constitution would cripple the market, causing a loss of jobs and municipal tax revenues.
“Each cardroom has an assemblyman and senator in their district,” Stallings said. “They then have the cities and the impact on tax revenues and employment.
“The fact that this has gone on for so long and the fact they’ve built bigger centers and hired more workers makes a political and financial justification to let this go on.”
“It has gotten to the point that some of these cardrooms are constructing large casinos,” Crowell said. “They are advertising themselves. They are advertising the games.
“And the cannibalization is no longer an insignificant issue. This is revenue being driven away from tribal gaming.
“The gap between 21 and blackjack could have regulatory and statutory implications. But even if you accept that 21 is another game, it’s still a banked card game, which the California Constitution says can only be played on tribal lands.
“The constitution supersedes inconsistent statues,” Crowell said.
Regulatory system failures
Much of the tribal criticism takes aim at the state’s bifurcated regulatory system with a CGCC under Brown and a BGC under AG Becerra.
The BGC has historically been poorly funded and largely staffed with sworn law enforcement officers lacking expertise in gambling compliance. Union and Civil Service rules prevent hiring from outside the Department of Justice.
Former CGCC Chairman Richard Lopes, onetime commissioner Richard Schuetz, tribal regulators, industry consultants and academicians have been critical of the lack of trained, experienced regulators.
But Burtis contends that the agency has stepped up its game.
“We had problems,” Burtis said. “We all knew we had issues. There was always talk that we were knuckle-dragging narcotics agents that don’t understand about gambling.
“We have had a good crew of people for several years now. They’ve gone through training. It was when we first started we were hiring people on the way out. We have a staff and a list of people waiting to get in now. We have come a long way.”
Cardroom issues casinos
But the California cardroom industry has been the target of far more federal money laundering, skimming and loan-sharking raids than the nation’s nearly 1,000 tribal government and commercial casinos united.
Ray Patterson, gaming commissioner for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, said he witnessed a “complete lack” of internal operating controls in cardrooms he’s visited.
“I’ve seen quite a few things that just shock me,” said Patterson, speaking at a panel titled, “Why isn’t California Properly Regulating the Cardroom Industry?” “Fellow (tribal) labs in this area would never allow those things to happen in their centers.”
“When you examine the gaming sector in California, where’s the black eye?” Crowell asked. “Where’s the corruption? Where’s the money laundering?
“It’s all in the cardrooms. The track record is pretty damn bad.”