Texas fighting to shut down tribal gaming center

Tribal leaders say there's nothing illegal about their games

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

LIVINGSTON, Texas - The state of Texas is locked in a legal battle with the Alabama-Coushatta tribe over the recently opened Naskila Gaming Center, which opened in June, with 365 electronic bingo machines, a small restaurant and a gift shop.
 
Naskila, a Native American word for Dogwood, is located on the Alabama-Coushatta reservation near the town of Livingston. Tribal leaders are hoping revenues from the gaming center will help improve conditions on the reservation.
 
“It benefits all of us — housing, public works and education,” said Jo Ann Battise, a chairperson for the tribal council.

Battise said 600 people live on the reservation, but there are only 100 homes. She hopes revenues from Naskila will help build much-needed housing. Battise said revenues also will help provide more scholarships.
 
“It's allowing the tribe to be self-sufficient,” said Chuck McDonald, a spokesperson for the Alabama-Coushatta tribe. “That's their goal.”
 
McDonald said the opening of Naskila also created 200 new jobs with benefits.
 
“It helped me a lot,” said gaming attendant Eric Poncho, who lives on the reservation.
 
Poncho said he was having trouble finding a job until Naskila opened. McDonald said more than half of the new jobs were filled by non-tribal employees living in the surrounding counties.
 
“The opportunity was beyond anything we could do in this area. I mean, it’s not available. Nothing like this is available for us in Polk County,” guest services representative Sharon Williams said. “My daughter is working here now.”
 
However, the future of Naskila is not secure. The state of Texas argues the machines at the center are illegal and has filed a lawsuit in federal court to shut down Naskila. Tribal leaders argue there's nothing illegal about their games.
 
Read the state's legal filing
 
“We feel like we have to fight back,” Battise said.
 
During a visit to Naskila, tribal leaders showed KPRC that despite the scrolling numbers, bells and flashing lights, the machines are actually electronic bingo. Each machine displays an electronic bingo card that shows players the patterns they need to complete to win. Tribal leaders said players compete against other players, not the house.
 
“The state of Texas offers charitable bingo and we are offering electronic bingo that's benefiting the Alabama-Coushatta tribe,” McDonald said.
 
The tribe also points out it received permission to offer this type of gaming from the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal agency that regulates gaming on all reservations. The commission was created following the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

Read the National Indian Gaming Commission's filing
  
“The state of Texas is saturated with bingo parlors, so what's the difference?” Battise said.
 
However, tribal members said when state officials visited Naskila before it opened, they told them these machines operate too much like slot machines, which are prohibited. The commission has three classes of gaming. Class I is tribal, ceremonial gaming; Class II is electronic bingo, and Class III is “Las Vegas style” gaming.
 
While tribal members argue their machines are Class II, the state argues the machines are Class III. In legal filings, officials with the Texas Attorney General’s Office write the Restoration Act of 1987 gives the state the authority to prevent Indian reservations from offering any type of gaming that is not already offered elsewhere in the state.
 
The state contends the Restoration Act “federalized” Texas gaming laws and supersedes the Gaming Regulatory Act. The only caveat is that any issue Texas has with activity on an Indian reservation must be addressed in federal court.
 
“They do look like slot machines, let's be honest,” McDonald said. “But they are bingo machines. We operate legally and we believe we’re on sound legal footing.”
 
The lawsuit is scheduled for trial next summer. In the meantime, Texas has not sought an injunction to prevent Naskila from continuing to operate while the lawsuit works its way through federal court.
 
The Texas Attorney General’s Office released a statement to KPRC 2 that read in part, “Unfortunately, this case is pending litigation and so we are unable to comment.”

This is the second time tribal leaders have tried to bring gaming to the reservation. In 2001, the tribe opened a Las Vegas-style casino. The casino was shut down after the state sued the tribe in federal court and won. Tribal leaders said the difference is the first casino had Class III gaming and this time, they are only offering Class II games.

“This time around, it’s been carefully planned,” Battise said.

2016 Click2Houston/KPRC2