New gaming chairman warns tribes about video slots

Monday, May 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Federal regulators warned Oklahoma tribes to shut down illegal Las Vegas-style video slot machines at their casinos or face closure and fines.

According to a copyright story in The Daily Oklahoman, American Indian tribes were warned in a stern three-page letter that the use of Class III gaming devices would not be tolerated.

``The bottom line is that all of these Class III devices must be promptly removed from tribal gaming facilities in Oklahoma,'' wrote Philip Hogen, the new chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission.

``My intention is to stop this activity by first seeking the assistance and cooperation of the tribal regulators and, second, by bringing enforcement actions against those operations that continue to operate these machines.''

Federal regulators are taking the get-tough stance after years of clashes with the tribes over the legitimacy of machines in casinos.

Tribes have insisted the casinos are offering only legal, Class II machines.

The warning has the potential of curtailing gaming at the state's 60 or so Indian casinos. A similar warning issued in January prompted tribes to shut down blackjack games.

The newest warning comes at a time when tribes are pushing for a deal with the state that would exempt certain machines from federal regulation. Such deals are known as compacts.

The tribes in turn would provide the state a cut of their gaming revenues. The state's share could be as much as $20 million to $30 million a year under a proposed agreement now before the Legislature.

Video machines in Oklahoma casinos that look, play and sound like traditional slot machines found in Las Vegas are at the center of the debate.

Federal regulators have outlawed a variety of machines in Oklahoma, including ``Red Hot Re-Spin,'' ``Buffalo Nickels,'' ``Lucky Cherries,'' ``Pot-O'-Gold,'' ``Rainbow Reels,'' ``Fantasy 5,'' ``Choctaw Skill Stop,'' ``Fruit Fiesta'' and ``Winner's Touch.''

The new memo complains that some tribes have simply replaced specifically banned machines with other illegal devices or made cosmetic changes to a banned game's features.

``Just because a vendor comes up with a new name and new graphics ... does not mean that the device can be played lawfully,'' Hogen wrote.

``Tribal leaders and gaming commissioners should be aware that play of these slot machines and like devices that are electronic facsimiles of a game of chance _ be they spinning reel games, video card games or pick number games _ are all subject to regulation ... and are Class III gaming.''

In his letter, Hogen urges tribal leaders to review their slot machines use or ``... your tribal gaming facility is at risk for enforcement action.''

Gaming operations that continue to offer video slot machines could face closure and the possibility of fines.

``A warning letter ... will not be issued in advance,'' the letter said.

Tracy Burris, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, said Sunday gaming leaders of some tribes have not received the letter yet.

Burris viewed the letter as an effort by the new commissioner to work with the tribes.

``He's ... saying, 'We may have issues out here, but let's work together to resolve these issues,' instead of saying, 'We have issues. Boom. This is it. Do it.' It's a big difference,'' Burris said.