“TRUTH BE TOLD,” MUSED A CHASTENED and philosophical Tony Soprano after a near-death experience early in his just-concluded sixth onscreen season, “there’s enough garbage for everybody.” Well, not exactly. Apparently, some wish to plain hog the trough all for themselves, even when it’s provided to them through public largesse.
Take the case of Richard Milanovich, chairman of the fabulously wealthy Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. You remember that crew, don’t you, from their $70 million, unsuccessful foray into California-ballot politics a few years back. (They bankrolled a proposition to defeat Arnold’s proposal for imposing fair taxes on the tribes.) This is the 400-member tribe that owns 50 percent of Palm Springs’ land, is its biggest landlord, and operates two massive casinos — that is, when the tribe isn’t out breaking labor unions.
These guys were also the primary California clients of disgraced scandalmeister Jack Abramoff and his co-conspirator Michael Scanlon, having paid them $10 million to bend some U.S. Postal Service and IRS rules in the tribe’s favor and, maybe, to help muscle out some potential Indian competitors.
After Abramoff got busted, Milanovich appeared before a gathering of other Indian gaming tribes (the sort of meeting that evokes the scene of Michael Corleone and Meyer Lansky huddling with Batista in GFII), and said he was sorry for all the bad PR this connection had brought to the rest of the boys. “It really pains me; it hurts me to know the fallout from that is affecting all of Indian country,” Milanovich told his fellow casino operators, perhaps even biting his lower lip. “I apologize to each and every one of you.” Since then, Milanovich has been parading around as an aggrieved victim of Abramoff’s shakedown operation, making himself available as an eager witness for the resulting congressional probe.
But this might as well be Tony apologizing to Carm for his indiscretions and vowing, now, to forever stay loyal. For Milanovich’s tribe is every bit as much victimizer as victim, and the only legit complaint it might have against Abramoff is that he overcharged the tribe. Indeed, Milanovich required no coaching last week as he eagerly appeared before a state Assembly committee in his attempt to block some needy Indians’ access to the same money-minting gaming license he was handed by well-meaning but muddle-minded voters when they legalized Indian casinos last decade.
The committee was hearing an innovative proposal fashioned by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that would have allowed the Big Lagoon tribe from Humboldt County and the dirt-poor Los Coyotes tribe from the deserts east of San Diego to build twin casinos in down-on-its heels Barstow. The Big Lagoon’s tribal lands are in an ecologically sensitive area in Northern California, and the Los Coyotes’ reservation is too barren and remote to support a casino. So the governor thought it would be a “creative solution” to let the two groups open up shop in Barstow, a town with one-third of its population on welfare and in need of some added revenue. Everyone would be happy. Except, of course, Milanovich.
What ticked him off wasn’t just the added competition (after all, his two casinos in the Palm Springs area are nowhere near the Barstow site). Nope, what got the chairman’s ire worked up were the terms of the agreement proposed by Arnold. In exchange for opening the two new gambling palaces, the tribes had agreed to pay the state between 16 percent and 25 percent of their take, and had also agreed to allow their casino workers to unionize.
Well, if there’s anything Chairman Milanovich hates most, it’s taxes and unions. He may be an Indian chief, but he’s also a longtime Republican who has given more than $100,000 in personal contributions to the president. The sweetheart gaming deal he signed with former Governor Davis exempted his tribe from paying any tax on its casino revenue. And for more than three years Milanovich has spent a stack of dough trying to block a unionization drive in his own casinos. His tribe is itching to expand its own gaming operations but refuses to accept Schwarzenegger’s demand that approval be contingent on paying a fair tax and permitting unionization.
Milanovich not only vigorously lobbied the Assembly committee against granting these two other tribes the same favors he’s been given, but he backed his argument with cold, hard cash. Committee Chairman Jerome Horton (D-Los Angeles) received more than $25,000 from the Agua Caliente and allied tribes for his recent unsuccessful primary run for a seat on the State Board of Equalization. The same tribes also forked over $90,000 for an independent committee that backed Horton’s campaign. Money talks and unconnected Indians walk. The committee voted 7-2 to block the Barstow deal.
MILANOVICH MADE NO BONES about his motivation in stripping his Indian brothers of their casino dreams. What he feared most was the precedent a deal like that would have established, a deal he feared might later be imposed on his own tribe. “It opens the door to labor. It opens the door to disgruntled city councils to take advantage of the tribes,” he said at the committee hearing. “That would put us at such a disadvantage, it would not be worth it to us.”
The chairman’s remarks, according to press reports, drew a tearful response from Big Lagoon chief Virgil Moorehead, who said he remembered the precasino days when, as a fellow Indian, Chairman Milanovich could be counted as a friend. Milanovich’s shamelessness was eclipsed only by his close ally, Vince Duro, vice chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Duro insisted at the committee hearing that his opposition to the Barstow casinos was based solely on protecting tribal heritage, not his tribe’s gambling profits. His tribe’s casino, near San Bernardino, is about 50 miles from Barstow, and Duro said the rival casino’s proposed site lies in the historic migratory grounds of his ancestors. Don’t you love that? His sacred ancestors are okay with him running slot machines and poker games on their own reservation, but wouldn’t want any on their migratory trails. Especially if run by another tribe.
“I know the poverty that Los Coyotes sits in,” Duro said after the tribe’s elderly chief told of members who live without running water or electricity. “I feel for that. I have relatives on the Los Coyotes reservation. But I have to look my children in the eye and tell them I’ve done what’s right in opposing this.” In other words, what’s right is to guarantee your own kids’ inheritance and screw the rest of the chump Indians. Paulie Walnuts would be onboard with that reasoning.
I suppose the only moral redemption in this story has a multicultural tinge — that Indians can be as greedy and ruthless as anyone else, given the opportunity. That in reality, there’s never really enough garbage to go around. But on the more practical level, Milanovich’s performance this past week should remind us that the $20 billion a year Indian gaming industry is one of the great scams of the past two decades. And that it’s not just the Jack Abramoffs and the Richard Scanlons who need to be more closely scrutinized, but also those who were oh so willing to hire them. The state already made one grievous mistake in granting the Agua Caliente and other casino tribes platinum privileges based solely on racial criteria. The error is compounded if we let DNA stand in the way of holding accountable what is now one of the most powerful and arrogant of political lobbies.