New Mexico Poker Tournament Kicks off Simmering Indian Affairs Legal Battle
A poker tournament held in late June at a New Mexico Indian casino unlicensed by that state, operated by Oklahoma's Fort Sill Apache tribe, may, as planned for the tribe, result in a legal battle over the tribe's stated casino plans. The latest volley in the escalating battle was a subpoena issued by the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) to the Fort Sill tribe demanding complete details of the Fort Sill poker event – information which the tribe has so far refused to provide.
The dispute centers over the tribe's plans to open a casino, already built, near Akela in southern New Mexico. The tribe built the casino under the auspices of a 2007 federal agreement, but also did so against the wishes of New Mexico officials; New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson actively opposes the casino and has suggested legal action, a physical blockade, and other measures to keep the facility from opening and keep gaming from occurring there. On June 22nd, the tribe held a by-invitation-only poker tournament at the Akela venue, with the stated hopes of forcing legal action against them so that they could in turn sue in their efforts to fully open the casino. While acknowledging that the poker tournament occurred, Fort Sill tribal officials released no specifics about the players or monies involved.
The Fort Sill tribe's wishes for legal action appear to have been granted with Tuesday's subpoena filing by the NIGC. In the document, signed by NIGC Chairman and Vice-Chairman Philip N. Hogen and Norman H. DesRosiers, respectively, the NIGC commands that within seven days the tribe turns over all information related to the event, including the following:
● The date, time and location of the gaming activity;
● The game(s) involved, including descriptions;
● The total number of participants (in the poker tournament);
● The complete identities of all tournament participants;
● The exact fees paid by each participant;
● The names of all tribal officials who participated in running the activity;
● Receipts for all prizes paid;
● All video surveillance and still photography from the event.
The immediate response issued by the Fort Sill tribe is a refusal to supply the requested information pending formal, written assurances that the information will not be shared with New Mexico state authorities. The Fort Sill tribe maintains that New Mexico has no authority over the Akela operation and that, despite the federal nature of the subpoena, the action was really taken at the behest of the state. According to Tribal Chairman Jeff Houser, "State officials have claimed that they are working with the Federal Government and that possible indictments could result from the activities on our lands. Soon after we heard news of the State's actions, we received the document request from the NIGC."
Houser's response also touched on Indian land rights in Oklahoma, stated that "selective enforcement" was practiced by the NIGC based on political affiliation, and that the state of New Mexico's officials crossed state lines to obtain information connected to the Fort Sill operation and "tried to intimidate the press into releasing information in violation of the First Amendment."
The Fort Sill response expressed a lack of desire to force the official legal confrontation but did not supply the requested information, leaving the current impasse in place.