The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Wolf wagers against Va. bill on gambling; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Virginia’s government recognizes eight separate American Indian nations inside the commonwealth.

A bill pending before Congress would extend federal recognition — and the benefits that go with it — to six of those tribes.

But that’s a very bad idea, according to 10th District Rep. Frank Wolf, who says the bill could be bad for Virginia's government.

Wolf says it’s not about heritage — it’s about gambling.

Tribal recognition has been in the headlines of late because of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, planned for 2007.

At present, organizers want descendants of both the English and American Indians to be on hand. But a number of the surviving tribes have said they’ll be hard pressed to join in the celebration if the federal government hasn’t recognized them as actual tribes.

Wolf, a Republican who represents Winchester, Frederick and Warren counties and parts of Northern Virginia, has long been an opponent of federally sanctioned gambling. That’s why he strongly opposes the bill for federal recognition of the tribes.

Wolf sent a strong letter to President Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when he learned that casinos would be eligible for some tax breaks to aid in reconstruction.

He also issued a call last week for a halt to new tribal recognitions in the form of a letter to Bush, calling the process “completely broken.”

Wolf made a point last week of correcting a reporter, who called the subject “Indian gaming.”

“It’s not ‘gaming,’” Wolf said. “Games are what you play when you’re at the beach.”

U.S. Sens. George Allen and John Warner, both R-Va., along four U.S. representatives from Virginia’s eastern half, have signed off on a bill that would grant the tribes federal recognition and take casinos off the table.

The new administration of Gov. Tim Kaine also has thrown its support to the effort.

“We will work with the [congressional] delegation, including Representative Wolf, to see if we can move forward on the issue,” Kaine’s press secretary, Kevin Hall, said Monday.

But there’s no need to ram recognition through Congress, Wolf said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees “a long detailed process that serves the nation well.”

Wolf says he has no problem with granting Virginia’s tribes federal recognition.

“I have great respect for the [Virginia tribes],” Wolf said. “I did offer an amendment [to past legislation] … that would have looked at how you improve housing and health care for Indian tribes, and it failed.”

But Wolf says that there’s a loophole that might allow newly recognized tribes to pursue casinos in the future.

“The current bill would not foreclose from somehow moving into gambling,” he said. “The tribe says we don’t want gambling, we don’t believe in gambling.”

Wolf said he takes them at their word, but some future generation of tribal leaders might change their minds. And if the gambling camel gets its nose under the tent, he added, the results could be disastrous.

Gambling interests bring unimaginable amounts of money to bear on state and local politics, particularly when it comes to matters of expansion and land use, Wolf said.

He also questioned wheth-er casinos provide enough benefits to tribes to justify the strain they put on communities. That’s not to say unemployment and other serious problems on some reservations don’t need help.

Reservations across the country are in dire need of improvement, he said.

“Very few Indians are actually prospering right now,” he said.

Indian casinos also are at the heart of a scandal rocking Washington’s political establishment.

Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to a number of charges earlier this month, including attempting to bribe federal officials.

Federal prosecutors charge that Abramoff helped raise money for Republican interests by taking large fees from lobbying clients, like a number of American Indian tribes with casinos, and diverted them to fundraising efforts and outright bribery.

“It is indeed sad and very wrong that Mr. Abramoff violated the trust of so many,” says Ernest L. Stevens, Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association in a statement issued after the Abramoff indictments.

Gambling is a huge business, and the money it can bring to bear can “just tie a community up in knots,” Wolf said.
Virginia’s government isn’t perfect, but the corrupting influences that have driven the Abramoff scandal are largely absent from politics in Richmond, Wolf said.

That would change the first time one of the native nations opened a casino.

“There’s so much money. All you have to do is hit the word ‘Abramoff’ on Google,” Wolf said. “I don’t want that for the state of Virginia. We have honest, ethical government.”