State Sues Tribe Over Reporting of Gifts

By Dan Morain, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 27, 2002

THE STATE
State Sues Tribe Over Reporting of Gifts
Court: The Palm Springs band, a major donor to political campaigns, claims it is immune from disclosure laws.

SACRAMENTO — California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, testing the limits of Indian sovereignty and state law, announced Thursday that it has sued to force a Palm Springs tribe and casino operator to comply with fundamental campaign finance and lobbying disclosure statutes.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is one of the top campaign spenders in California, having contributed at least $13 million to state campaigns since 1998. But like several other tribes, the Agua Caliente band contends that it need not comply with the Political Reform Act of 1974 because it enjoys immunity from state law.

The tribe balked at complying with aspects of state disclosure rules followed by other campaign donors and groups that hire lobbyists to influence legislation in Sacramento.

The FPPC sued after the tribe, citing its status as a sovereign entity that is not bound by state law, refused to settle a case involving a series of lapses in campaign finance disclosure filings, and its refusal to list the bills it tracked in its lobbying operation in 2001,

“Why would they be immune?” asked FPPC Chairwoman Karen Getman. “Anybody who contributes major sums to campaigns in California must let the voters know they’re doing so. That is essential to the state of California’s sovereignty.”

The FPPC, concerned that delay might preclude it from suing the tribe, initially filed a bare-bones lawsuit July 30 to comply with the statute of limitations. The commission amended and expanded that suit Thursday.

The new version focuses on the tribe’s alleged failure to properly report donations in 1998, when Agua Caliente spent $7.5 million on the campaigns of 135 candidates for the Legislature and statewide office and on Proposition 5, which sought to legalize casinos on tribal land.

The campaign committee for Proposition 5, which was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 1999, disclosed money it received from Agua, as did candidates who took the tribe’s money.

But the FPPC alleges that the tribe failed to meet deadlines for filing a major-donor statement, a report required of all campaign contributors who give $10,000 or more in a year. The tribe also failed to file late-contribution reports, required when donors give $1,000 or more to a candidate or proposition in the closing days of a campaign.

Finally, the tribe filed reports in 2001 disclosing that it lobbies, but did not fill them out fully by citing bills it was tracking. The tribe’s Sacramento lobbying firm makes no claim of immunity, and files disclosure forms listing bills it tracks and agencies it seeks to influence.

The suit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, seeks an injunction forcing the tribe to comply with the act. It also seeks damages, which could amount to as much as $7.5 million.

Agua attorney Art Bunce declined to comment, except to refer calls to the tribe’s Web site, www.aguacaliente.org. The site contains various filings that appear to comply with state disclosure law.

“Under federal law,” the tribe’s Web site says, “the tribe is not required to provide this information to the FPPC at all, but the tribe chooses to do so voluntarily…. With this voluntary information from the tribe, the FPPC can match up what the tribe reports with what the recipients of its donations and others report, and thus verify the accuracy of the reports.”

The Agua Caliente band was a relatively late entrant in casino gambling. But it has become one of the most successful, operating its Spa Resort Casino in perhaps the single best location of any Indian casino in the state: downtown Palm Springs. The tribe also is a major political player, donating $426,000 to state candidates in the first half of this year, including $77,000 to Gov. Gray Davis. The tribe has contributed $127,000 to Davis since he took office.

Davis, who had no comment on the lawsuit, appointed Getman to her post as chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission. Getman said she did not inform Davis of the lawsuit before filing it.

The question of whether Indian tribes must comply with the Political Reform Act attracted attention in 2000 when California Common Cause filed a massive complaint alleging hundreds of reporting errors by tribes and other gambling interests.

“It is long overdue,” Jim Knox, head of the private watchdog group, said of Thursday’s action. Knox appeared at a commission meeting last December, and criticized the FPPC for citing card clubs and horse racing interests but not Indian tribes.

“If the commission is uncertain of its authority, let’s get it resolved,” Knox said then. “Let’s take an enforcement action. Let’s fight it out in the courts. It is in the public interest to resolve this issue.”

At the December hearing, FPPC officials said they were uncertain that the Political Reform Act, a post-Watergate law approved by voters in 1974, applied to the tribes, given their general immunity from lawsuits and various state laws.

On Thursday, Getman said the commission now is certain of its position. She said state law permits any individual, corporation or other entity–except foreign nationals–to contribute to state political races. Tribes, she said, have every right to remain involved in politics, so long as they comply with state law. If they don’t comply, Getman said, “from our point of view, they should stop” donating.