Monday, Feb. 5, 2001 | 11:20 a.m.
WASHINGTON -- Circumventing the Interior Department and the California governor, a congressman quietly pushed through a new law for a landless Indian tribe in his district that could open the San Francisco Bay area to Las Vegas-style gambling.
Working closely with a labor union that hopes to organize casino employees across California, Democratic Rep. George Miller sponsored a three-sentence amendment that was buried in the 150-page-plus Omnibus Indian Advancement Act in the final weeks of the last Congress.
Miller's amendment places a 10-acre parcel that is a 25-minute drive from downtown San Francisco into reservation status for the Lytton Rancheria band of 220 Indians. President Clinton signed the act containing the amendment in December.
Last-minute amendments for members' districts are a staple of every Congress, but few carry the impact of Miller's law.
Twenty investors led by former Philadelphia Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz plan to transform a gambling card room on the site in the East Bay city of San Pablo into a casino with up to 2,000 slot machines. According to industry data, 2,000 slots at an urban casino can generate a quarter-billion dollars in revenue annually.
Except for Palm Springs, Miller's law marks the first time a California Indian tribe has gotten reservation land for Las Vegas-style gambling in the heart of an urban area.
Gambling opponents in Congress and competing casino interests in California and Nevada didn't spot Miller's provision, which was included in the "Technical Corrections" section of the bill.
The amendment exempts the 10 acres from restrictions that the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act places on newly designated reservation land and narrows the legal grounds for court challenges. But it does this by referring only to the law's date of enactment, not its name.
Miller's office says the congressman wasn't trying to sneak the provision through and that the Senate, not the House, was responsible for the "Technical Correction" designation.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a gambling opponent who learned of the situation in January, said it's "a disgrace" the amendment became law. "I think if you asked 435 congressmen, nobody would know anything" about it, he said.
Tribal attorney Anthony Cohen said "the legislative proposal was a long shot. We were as surprised as anyone when it passed."
Miller is the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, and a handful of Republican and Democratic colleagues were aware of the provision before it passed.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who was the committee's chairman last year, "sees it as a California issue so he's going to defer" to Miller, said spokeswoman Amy Inaba.
At the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, "the way things work around here is that if the congressman in whose district the project is and the senators from the state involved don't have a problem with it, then it's OK," said Chris Changery, spokesman for committee chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.
However, neither Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., nor her staff know about the provision, said spokesman Howard Gantman. "We are reviewing it," he said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., "knew about the provision, didn't object and we heard no objection from anyone in the community" to the tribe's long-standing effort to get Las Vegas-style gambling on its land, said spokesman David Sandretti.
Competing card rooms in the Bay area are up in arms over Miller's measure, which they learned of only after it had cleared Congress.
The tribe's application for reservation status was pending in the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs when the tribe went to Congress. Last spring, California Gov. Gray Davis refused to negotiate a gambling agreement with the Lytton band, citing their lack of land.
Michael Cox, a lawyer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International union, known in Las Vegas as the Culinary Union, and a former general counsel to the National Indian Gaming Commission, said he "helped draft the language" of Miller's amendment.
The union persuaded Miller to help "after we brought all this support to him -- the union, the workers, the tribe and the city of San Pablo," said Jack Gribbon, the union's California political director.
The Culinary represents several hundred workers at the San Pablo card room and the union plans to organize workers at dozens of California casinos.
Lytton's backers still must negotiate an agreement with the governor in order to bring in slot machines, but legal experts say Miller's law puts Davis in a corner if he tries to block them.
"The tribe's chances of getting slot machines are about the same as holding a full house in draw poker," said I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in California who has worked with governments, the gaming industry and tribes on gambling issues.
California voters approved a referendum allowing some types of Las Vegas-style gambling, including slot machines on Indian land.
The 10-acre site is the first land the Lytton band has had in more than 40 years. It has been looking fruitlessly for a home, but "we got massacred" with local opposition from communities that wanted no part of the tribe, said Lytton chairwoman Margie Mejia.
"We are a tribe without a country," she said.