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INVESTIGATION: California AG Becerra Took Over $500,000 From Tribal Casinos, Now His Agency is Paying Them Back

 
 

BY BRIAN HEWS • [email protected]

 

In June 2019, Hews Media Group-Los Cerritos Community News exclusively reported on several large California Tribal Casinos giving nearly $300,000 to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to fund his successful 2018 campaign.

Tribal Casinos are direct competitors with California cardrooms, which include the Commerce Casino in Commerce, the Gardens Casino in Hawaiian Gardens, the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens, and many others up and down the state.

The Tribal casinos have alleged “corruption” in those cardrooms and the casino-style games they offer for decades, but authorities have never filed a single lawsuit based on their complaints. 

Bill Lockyer (1999-2007) refused, Jerry Brown (2007-2011) refused, and even Kamela Harris (2011-2017) refused.

But when Becerra was appointed attorney general by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 2016, he signaled to the Tribes he was there to help them out, the casinos in-turn gave him $286,000.

HMG-LCCN received many calls and emails saying that money was “the tip of the iceberg;” turns out they were right, with a subsequent investigation by HMG-LCCN finding an additional $506,000 given to Becerra by the Tribal Casinos.

The Beginning

It took only a few months after his election for Becerra to ignore three prior AG’s, and over forty years of precedent, handing the casinos the holy grail by delivering a questionable rule change that would devastate most cardrooms in California.

The move had many scratching their heads, alleging pay-to-play between the AG’s office, the Bureau of Gambling Control, and the Tribal Casinos who wondered “why the change and why do it now.”

If enacted, the new rules will put many California cardrooms out of business, and likely bankrupt some cities, devastating whole families, while costing cities and the state thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue.

The changes will also cause the loss of millions in philanthropic dollars given to many local communities and organizations the cardrooms support.

Many cities will have to implement severe cuts in public safety and services, some, like Hawaiian Gardens, will likely be forced to file for bankruptcy.

“If these regulations were adopted, they would kill the cardroom industry and devastate dozens of communities and thousands of working families,” the California Gaming Assn., a trade group for the state’s cardrooms, said in a statement. “This proposal is a clear attack on the cardroom industry and a message that the bureau is intent on eliminating this lawful $5.6-billion industry and putting 32,000 Californians out of work.”

A study by the trade group provided a testament to the economic impact that cardrooms provide. 

In Los Angeles County alone, cardrooms generated over $2.3 billion in economic activity, nearly $71 million in local taxes and supported nearly 14,000 jobs. 

Statewide the cardrooms support 32,000 jobs and over $500 million in state and local taxes.

Phil Wagner, former Bell Gardens city manager,  home of the Bicycle Hotel and Casino, told HMG-LCCN before he left the city, “the City of Bell Gardens generates approximately $13 million from their partnership with the Bicycle Hotel & Casino, which is 44% of the General Fund budget. Should the City lose any significant share of that revenue it would necessitate employee layoffs in addition to severe cuts to city services including the police department, which is 51% of the city’s total budget.

City of Commerce City Manager Edgar Cisneros said the proposed rule changes would force the City to make 25 percent cuts across the board, severely impacting public safety and infrastructure.

State’s Top Law Enforcement Officer Violates the Law 

And Becerra, along with his sidekick Stephanie Shimazu, did not try to covertly change the rules. 

Becerra took the unprecedented step and blatantly circumvented state law, using his own bureau to bypass Governor Newsom’s commission who is in charge of reviewing and approving the cardroom changes he proposed.

Becerra’s Department of Justice oversees the gambling industry using the Bureau of Gambling Control (BGC); Shimazu is the Chair of the BCG. 

BGC members are appointed by the Attorney General and is the investigatory and enforcement agency that looks into crimes, levying fines and revoking licenses when warranted.

Then there is the  Gambling Control Commission (Commission) which regulates the industry; the Commission members are appointed by, and report directly to, Governor Newsom.

Even though the Commission has the exclusive authority over gambling rule changes, Becerra ordered his agency, the BGC, to violate its charter and overrule changes that are clearly under the Commission’s purview.

And there are 506,000 additional reasons for Becerra to keep fighting for the changes.

Another Half-Million to Becerra

The HMG-LCCN investigation found hundreds of thousands in additional contributions from the Tribal Casinos, companies affiliated with the Tribal Casinos, and even out-of-state Tribal Casinos that have supported Becerra for years.

In addition, a Political Action Committee called  Becerra for Congress- Leadership for Today and Tomorrow, also took in donations from the largest Tribal Casinos.

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$100,000 in donations to Becerra’s Leadership PAC.

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The discovery will most certainly strengthen the case by the California Cardrooms who have alleged Becerra’s devastating rule changes and political favors are related to the Tribal Casinos donations.

Documents from the Federal Election Commission and California’s Cal-Access website show, in addition to the $286,000 in donations from the Tribal Casinos as reported back in June 2019, another $506,000 was funneled  into Becerra campaign coffers.

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SUMMARY of donations to Becerra totaling over $792,000. Sources: FEC and Cal-Access.

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$100,000 from some familiar California Tribal Casinos went into the Becerra for Congress- Leadership for Today and Tomorrow PAC: Yocha Dehe, who runs Cache Creek Casino, gave $35,000; Pechanga ponied up $30,000; Agua Caliente donated $25,000; and San Manuel gave $10,000.

The previous article by HMG-LCCN found that, in addition to the Leadership PAC, Pechanga gave $45,000 (total $75,000) ; San Manuel gave $34,000 ($44,000), Agua Caliente gave $30,000 ($55,000),  and the Yocha Dehe Wintun gave $24,000 ($59,000).

Other Tribal Casinos who donated:

Chumash in Santa Ynez – $23,000

Morongo Casino – $18,000

Sycuan Resort in San Diego – $14,600

The Table Mountain Rancheria Casino in Fresno – $10,000

The tiny Saboba Casino in San Jacinto – $9,800

Viejas Casino in Alpine – $7,300

Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians – $7,300

Ricon Harrah’s Casino – $6,500

Colusa Indian Community Council – $5,000

San Pablo Lytton Casino in Northern California – $2,500

Twenty-nine Palms Band of Mission Indians – $2,900

Tribal Money From All Over the Country

And money flowed in from out-of-state where over eighteen tribes from eleven states gave nearly $90,000.

The contributing nations included:

Saginaw Tribe from Eagle’s Landing Casino in Michigan – $15,000

Puyallup Tribe of the Emerald Queen Casino in Washington – $7,000

Poarch Creek Indians of the Poarch Creek Casino in Alabama – $7,500

Salt River Indians of Arizona -$6,500

Shakopee Sioux in Minnesota – $7,900

What Are They Hiding?

And Becerra won’t let the press in the door for a closer look at the donations.

In Dec 2019, HMG-LCCN sent a records request to the DOJ asking for any and all emails, with attachments, sent to or from anyone at the BGC including Stephanie Shimazu, and other BGC members including Yolanda Morrow, Nathan Davalle, and Suzanne George, from Sept. 2017 to Dec. 2019, regarding keywords related to the cardroom rule changes.

Five days later the DOJ gave a very surprising answer to the request, “Except as specifically provided in the Gambling Control Act, the records of the Bureau [the BGC] are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act [as dictated] in the Business & Professions Code, Section 19821.”

The DOJ indicated that anything involving the BGC, casinos or cardrooms, such as licenses and applications, is sensitive information and is exempt from disclosure.

“That’s interesting,” said one local cardroom owner who did not what to be identified, “nothing we give them is sacred information.”

La Verne based attorney Kelly Aviles, who is expert at fighting public agencies that refuse public records requests, told HMG-LCCN, “this is appalling, no agency should be above the law.  The California Public Records Act is the State’s implementation of one of the most basic principles in our democracy – that the people have the right to information about how public agencies are conducting its business.  This kind of secrecy promotes corruption and undermines the public’s confidence in our institutions.”

And the very Business and Professions Code that the DOJ cites runs counter to the agency’s  claim of exemption.

Section 19801 (g and h) of the code states, “Public trust that permissible gambling will not endanger public safety… and is free from criminal and corruptive elements….can only be maintained by strict and comprehensive regulation of all persons, locations, practices, associations, and activities related to the operation of lawful gambling establishments.”

“How does withholding of public documents by the DOJ support public trust?,” snapped Aviles.

HMG-LCCN emailed Becerra’s press office for comment. They wrote back, “talk to Becerra’s campaign manager.”

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