Tribe pur­sued first Va. casino

Pa­munkey In­di­ans’ recog­ni­tion is chal­lenged

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JOE HEIM

In the weeks be­fore the Pa­munkey In­di­ans re­ceived fed­eral recog­ni­tion in July, lead­ers of the Vir­ginia tribe were pur­su­ing a po­ten­tial casino deal with de­vel­op­ers, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter to tribal mem­bers from then-Chief Kevin Brown ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post. That ef­fort — and the re­sult­ing-fall­out—led-to-ac­ri­mony among the 208-mem­ber tribe and, ul­ti­mately, to Brown los­ing his job.

Land­ing a casino would have huge im­pli­ca­tions for the Pa­munkey, who claim Poc­a­hon­tas as an an­ces­tor and have spent decades and at least $2.5 mil­lion seek­ing fed­eral recog­ni­tion. The im­pact would also be sig­nif­i­cant for Vir­ginia, one of the few states in the coun­try with­out casino gam­bling, and for MGM, the casino be­he­moth that is open­ing a $1.3 bil­lion casino next year at Na­tional Har­bor in Prince Ge­orge’s County, across the Po­tomac from North­ern Vir­ginia.

For now, though, the tribe’s recog­ni­tion is on hold be­cause of a last-minute chal­lenge to the des­ig­na­tion by a Cal­i­for­nia-based group that has sought to limit In­dian casino ex­pan­sion.

The Pa­munkey had re­fused to dis­close whether they would chase casino op­por­tu­ni­ties. The

let­ter from the for­mer chief is the first clear sug­ges­tion that the tribe was mov­ing in that di­rec­tion.

In a June 22 let­ter sent on Pa mun key Tribal Gov­ern­ment sta­tionery to res­i­dents of the reser­va­tion, Brown ac­cused mem­bers of the tribal coun­cil of con­spir­ing to force him out of his po­si­tion be­cause he had de­cided not to sign a casino deal with a de­vel­oper.

“I have seen first­hand the greed and evil a deal like this can bring out in peo­ple and have changed my po­si­tion re­gard­ing gam­ing as a vi­able en­deavor for the tribe at this time,” Brown said in the let­ter. “The Coun­cil is at­tempt­ing to go for­ward with the de­vel­op­ment with­out my con­sent, which can cause se­ri­ous le­gal prob­lems for the tribe in the fu­ture.”

Brown was re­fer­ring to a June 20 meet­ing that took place on the reser­va­tion where, he said, tribal lead­ers “Bob Gray, Brad Brown, War­ren Cook and Ivy Hill, as­sisted by our for­mer at­tor­ney, Mark Tilden, have taken it upon them­selves to at­tempt to over­throw your tra­di­tional Gov­ern­ment of a Chief & Coun­cil.”

The flare-up on the 1,200-acre reser­va­tion, east of Rich­mond, fol­lowed a pro­posed an­nual bud­get that would have paid the chief $100,000, the as­sis­tant chief $50,000 and the tribe’s six coun­cil mem­bers $25,000. Other item­ized ex­penses would have pushed the an­nual bud­get to­tal to around $500,000, a huge leap from its cur­rent bud­get of ap­prox­i­mately $30,000.

Those fig­ures roiled the reser­va­tion’s mem­bers, with many won­der­ing where the money would come from and ques­tion­ing the fair­ness of the sug­gested salar­ies. While no spe­cific de­vel­oper is named in any of the cor­re­spon­dences, some mem­bers said they be­lieved that money for the an­nual bud­get was be­ing pro­vided up­front by an in­vestor as part of a long-term deal.

“You ain’ t gonna get that kind of money by open­ing up a lit­tle store on the reser­va­tion ,” said a mem­ber of the tribe who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to speak freely on the mat­ter.

Pa­munkey lead­ers now say there is no agree­ment in the works.

“No, no deal has been signed, and I can’t speak any fur­ther to it than that,” said Robert Gray, who was elected chief after Brown’s de­par­ture in late June. “What you’ re re­fer­ring to is in­ter­nal trib­al­af­fairs, and we have laws that we don’t share that.”

Tilden, the tribe’s at­tor­ney, who sur­vived an ef­fort by Brown to fire him, said in a state­ment: “All com­ments in the let­ter re­flect the views and opin­ions of an in­di­vid­ual Tribal mem­ber and not those of the Pa­munkey In­dian Tribe or its gov­ern­ment.” Brown de­clined to com­ment. The prospect of the tribe open­ing a casino did not sit well with elected of­fi­cials in Vir­ginia who have long fought casino de­vel­op­ment. But Vir­ginia House Speaker Wil­liam J. How­ell (R-Stafford) was not sur­prised to learn of the dis­cus­sions.

“Most tribes in this coun­try have gone the route of get­ting a casino li­cense, and I had no rea­son to think that the Pa­munkeys would be any dif­fer­ent,” said How­ell, who has been a vo­cif­er­ous critic of casi­nos through­out his ca­reer.

De­spite his op­po­si­tion, he said the leg­is­la­ture would not fight the tribe’s ef­forts. “I don’t see how we could, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s a fed­eral is­sue.”

MGM ex­ec­u­tives, who had been cer­tain that Vir­ginia would re­main a casino-gam­bling hold­out, also ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment. “It was our un­der­stand­ing from the tribe’s re­peated state­ments dur­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion process that it had no plans to pur­sue casino de­vel­op­ment,” said Gor­don M. Ab­sher, a spokesman for MGM Re­sorts In­ter­na­tional.

In July, the Pa­munkey be­came the first Vir­ginia tribe to gain fed­eral recog­ni­tion. The de­ci­sion, which had been sought by the tribe for more than three decades, was her­alded by the state’s other In­dian tribes, six of which are seek­ing fed­eral recog­ni­tion, and by po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, in­clud­ing Sens. Ti­mothy M. Kaine (D) and Mark R. Warner( D) and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

But the his­toric de­ci­sion was put on hold Oct .6 after a chal­lenge from Stand Up for Cal­i­for­nia, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Pen­ryn, Calif., that has sought to limit the de­vel­op­ment and spread of casi­nos on In­dian land.

Ch­eryl Sch­mit, Stand Up’s founder, filed a four-page ap­peal with the In­te­rior Board of In­dian Ap­peals, say­ing that the tribe had not met qual­i­fi­ca­tions for fed­eral sta­tus. Sch­mit said that tribe mem­bers are not de­scended from In­dian an­ces­tors and that it is ques­tion­able whether the tribe op­er­ated as a func­tion­ing po­lit­i­cal en­tity, both of which are re­quire­ments for recog­ni­tion.

The tribe, which greeted English set­tlers at Jamestown more than 400 years ago, dis­missed Sch­mit’s ar­gu­ments.

“Stand Up for Cal­i­for­nia’s re­quest to the IBIA for re­con­sid­er­a­tion is un­founded, mer­it­less and un­sup­ported by ev­i­dence,” Tilden said in an e-mail to The Post. “The Tribe’s sov­er­eign strength, which traces back well be­fore the ar­rival of the ear­li­est colonists to Vir­ginia, will see it through this frivolousat­tack as it has seen it through so many other thought­less, mean­spir­ited at­tacks in the past.”

The ap­peals process could be a lengthy one, a fact that ag­gra­vates tribe mem­bers who said they be­lieved that they fi­nally had recog­ni­tion in hand.

“We’re dis­ap­pointed,” Gray said in an in­ter­view. “Thirty years of dis­ap­point­ment. That’s how long this has taken, and then to have an or­ga­ni­za­tion from the other side of the coun­try do­ing some­thing for what­ever ne­far­i­ous pur­poses that they have, it makes us an­gry.”

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