Since 2000, a group called the California Fee to Trust Consortium
has been expediting tribal land applications in an
arrangement which allows tribes to pay the salaries
of federal employees. In the wake of a 2006 report by the federal Office of the Inspector General,
there appear to have been some changes to the program.
The report found that the Consortium gave “premium service” to tribes that gave the most money. It also suggested
that an oversight committee appointed by the tribes
themselves may have exercised undue influence over
According to documents recently sent to the Capitol
Weekly, the Pacific Regional Office (PRO) of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has more clear control
over selecting employees for the consortium. Under
the Sept. 2008 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that renewed the body for another three years, the
Consortium is still governed by a combination of the
PRO and a committee elected by the member tribes.
But there are some key differences. The name of the
committee of member tribes has been changed from an
“oversight committee” to an “advisory committee,” implying that the group has less control over day
to day operations at the Consortium.
Another is that the BIA office appears to have more
control over selecting and hiring Consortium employees.
The MOU states “the PRO will make the final employee selections and
will inform the Consortium of the selected employees.”
“It seems like now the BIA is more in charge than the
advisory committee is,” said Cheryl Schmit of Stand Up For California, a group
that has frequently opposed the expansion of tribal
gaming in California. “There is a little more oversight.”
Under the MOU that governed the group from 2005 to 2008, the oversight committee would have “direct participation,” and had a role in writing job descriptions and conducting
candidate interviews. The current MOU lays out no such
rights to the committee, saying only that it could
“make a recommendation” but that the process “will follow federal personnel rules and regulations.”
Another key phrase, singled out in the 2006 Inspector General’s report, is also missing from the 2008 MOU: “Neither consortium funds nor consortium staff will
be used to non-consortium purposes.” The report interpreted this to mean that the Consortium
would only work on trust applications for tribes that
paid into it.
But one critic of the Consortium said it wasn’t clear whether the changes were more than cosmetic.
“I wonder how often the recommendations are exactly
what the BIA decides,” said Kathy Cleary, board president of the anti-casino group Preservation of Los Olivos. The group,
known as P.O.L.O., has been fighting a local casino
tribe, the Santa Ynez Chumash, for years over their
efforts to open and expand their tribal casino. “My question would be whether this really has been revised
and really is transparent, or if it’s just a looping mechanism where the advisory committee
really makes the decisions.”
The activities of the Consortium could be key to the
future of tribal gaming in California. In order to
build casinos, tribes need land that has been “taken into trust,” that is, officially federally recognized as tribal
land. Many tribes do not have enough land, or land
in an appropriate location, to build a casino. There
are 66 tribes currently enrolled as members in the Consortium.
This list encompasses some of the biggest casino tribes
in the state, including all of the “Big Four” tribes that pushed through new gaming compacts by
putting $80 million behind Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97, on the February 5, 2008 ballot: the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Morongo
Band of Mission Indians, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.
But many tribes are also trying to take land into trust
for other reasons, such as housing or regaining part
of their ancestral area. There is also a huge backlog
of land trust applications around the nation, partially
due to budget cuts and lack of staff. This is the reason
the Consortium was first created in 2000. Several similar consortia were created by the BIA
in other areas of the country around the same time.
The backlog has only grown worse, “compounded by the increasing number of applications
filed each year,” according to the MOU.
One problem identified in the 2006 Inspector General report was that the tribes that
put in the most money also seemed to get the fastest
results. Like previous MOUs, this one requires member
tribes to put in at least $3,000 annually for three years. But some tribes have put
in up to $100,000 in a year.
According to documents acquired by the Capitol Weekly
in 2008, 15 tribes put in about 80 percent of the $5.5 million gathered by the Consortium between 2000 and 2008. These same tribes received just over half of the
land expedited into trust by Consortium staff.
The Chumash have been a key player in the group, contributing
$450,000 prior to the 2008 MOU. Only two tribes, the Santa Rosa Racheria ($900,000) and Sycuan ($630,000), had given more. The tribe was not among the top 15 recipients of fee-to-trust land, moving only a 12 acre parcel through the Consortium in 2004. However, P.O.L.O. is fighting the tribe’s efforts to bring two more parcels into trust, totaling
1,700 acres, something Cleary characterized as the tribe
“trying to buy up the valley.”
“At this point we have not seen anything that gives
us any feeling that the process is transparent,” Cleary said, noting that information about the Consortium
only seems to come out through Freedom of Information
Several Consortium tribes had not replied to request
for comment as of press time.