Judge Concludes Tribes Must Report Donations

March 7, 2003

Sacramento Superior Judge Loren McMaster did the right thing in requiring Indian tribes to report their political contributions under the same rules that apply to all other Californians.

McMaster’s ruling upset Palm Springs’ powerful Agua Caliente tribe, which plans to appeal the decision. Meantime, Attorney General Bill Lockyer has reversed course and decided to do his duty and represent the Fair Political Practices Commission when the case goes to a higher court on appeal.

Lockyer bailed out of the case eight months ago, prompting the cash-strapped state to request $100,000 to hire private counsel. Lockyer recused himself because he was a major beneficiary of tribal contributions, collecting nearly $800,000. But it’s hard to find an elected official who hasn’t received money from tribes, which have replaced the California Teachers Association as the state’s largest political donor.

Taking on the tribal sovereignty issue, Judge McMaster wrote: “Federal common law does not extend immunity to Indian tribes from suits alleging they have violated state laws designed to protect the integrity of the state’s own political processes.” He was no less on point in noting: “If large contributors to the electoral and initiative processes – like the tribe – were not subject to (state) enforcement actions, the institutions and processes of California’s government would be subverted.”

Those two sentences underscore the importance of this landmark case. Allowing the Agua Caliente tribe to defy state law would have made a mockery of the rules that govern California’s political system. Those rules expressly require that major political donors publicly disclose their contributions.

There can be exceptions to these rules. They were put into place a quarter century ago by voters who wanted a bright light shone on the decision-making process. As one of the state’s biggest political contributors – $13.6 million over the last five years – the Agua Caliente tribe wrongly assumed that the rules don’t apply to it.

Judge McMaster correctly concluded otherwise. His ruling is important because of its precedent-setting potential. Should a higher court uphold this decision, it could have national implications. A similar case is pending against the Santa Rosa band of Lemoore, in Kings County, which stands accused of failing to report $525,000 in campaign contributions. Meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear a California case concerning jurisdictional lines for law enforcement in regard to Indian reservations. That ruling also could affect tribes nationwide.

California’s gambling tribes have been particularly adept at parlaying the sovereignty issue to advance their political agenda. But their considerable clout has been achieved the old-fashioned way – by showering candidates and causes with cash. During the last decade, the tribes have spent $150 million on political activities. Little wonder they have gotten nearly everything they wanted from a pliant Legislature. Which is why the courts have to step in from time to time to ensure that everyone plays by the rules.