Oklahoma gaming tribes face illegal machine fines

Sunday, January 25th 2004, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

The National Indian Gaming Commission has assessed almost $21 million in fines and settlements against Oklahoma's gaming tribes since 1993, according to a published report.

Many violations identified by the commission were for operating illegal gaming machines, and more than half of the fines and settlements are still due, The Oklahoman reported in a copyright story in Sunday's editions.

Oklahoma gaming tribes have been in conflict with the federal agency over the legality of their electronic games, which look and operate like slot machines. Tribes have contended the games are a legal, souped-up version of bingo.

The agency could have far less responsibility in regulating gaming tribes under a proposal announced by Gov. Brad Henry last week.

It "will give legal certainty to many of the games already offered in existing casinos," Henry said. "It's ... important to point out this proposal would not bring Las Vegas-style casino gaming to Oklahoma. It would simply address the same type of games that have been played at tribal casinos across the state."

The agency's regulatory documents were provided to The Oklahoman in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request. A weeklong study of the records showed:

--A dozen tribes in Oklahoma have been fined or paid settlements after regulators reported gaming violations. Some tribes were cited repeatedly. Most fines were under $50,000.

--The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma has been fined the most and currently owes $11,276,000 for past use of illegal machines. Regulators agreed in writing in December to consider a reduction.

Seminole leaders are working toward reopening their four gaming sites on a probationary basis. They have pledged to set aside 20 percent of net gaming revenues to pay the fines.

--Tribes are allowed to spread payments over months or even years. Three tribes are in the middle of paying off significant settlements over their former use of machines deemed prohibited by regulators.

The Absentee Shawnee Tribe agreed to pay $3.5 million, the Cherokee Nation agreed to pay $2.5 million and the Choctaw Nation agreed to pay $3.15 million.

--Some tribes fall behind on payments. The Apache Tribe of Oklahoma agreed to pay $10,000 by Jan. 1, 1998, for failing to do background checks on employees at its now-closed gaming operation. It is listed as still owing $3,000.

--The Chickasaw Nation avoided fines by immediately removing machines in June 2002 after getting a violation notice, even though tribal leaders disputed the games were illegal.

--Regulators issued only four new violation notices last year nationwide. Two were against Oklahoma tribes.


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