Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Tribes In The Media Series: Mohegan Federal Funding Questioned

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Team 5 Investigates Uncovers Indian Money Grab
Millions of Dollars Go to Casino Rich Tribes; Others Get Next to Nothing

BOSTON -- Gamblers know this saying well: The house always wins.

In the case of Indian gaming, casinos don't just win your money at the slots; they get millions from your tax dollars, too.

"They shouldn't be getting subsidies from taxpayers who don't make that kind of money," said Barbara Anderson from Citizens for Limited Taxation. What a jackpot it's been for the country's two richest tribal casinos. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun each roll in an estimated $1 billion dollar a year, tax free. Despite all their riches, the federal government continues to pay them millions in grants.

"Is this fair to taxpayers?" asked Team 5 Investigates Sean Kelly.

"Sure, you could say that the federal government would be happy to ensure that every member of the tribe is getting the median family income for the area," Anderson said. "But beyond that, I can't see why we owe them an extremely lucrative lifestyle."

Life is good for the Mashantucket Pequots who operate Foxwoods Resort and Casino. Some tribe members live in a gated, country club -style setting complete with swimming pools, tennis courts and a golf course.

Team 5 Investigates obtained documents that show how much your tax dollars contribute to this affluent way of life. Over the last five years the tribe collected $16,970,210 in federal grants. More than $170 thousand of it paid for road maintenance and shoveling. Almost $2 million went to their fire and police departments. Other grants included: $1.6 million for archaeology projects, $82,000 to study fox and rabbit populations and $10,000 to support a basket weaving tour.
A spokesman for the Pequots declined Team 5's request for an on- camera interview. But the tribe defended its windfall in federal funds, saying there's no difference between a sovereign nation state receiving grant money and any other state, including Massachusetts, that does the exact same thing.

House rules at Mohegan Sun are different. "We were the first tribe actually to go to Washington and say, 'You know what? We want to bring back this check," said Charles Bunnell, chief of staff for the Mohegan tribe.

While the tribe did give back almost $5 million over the last five years, records show they've kept $8.4 million. That money paid mostly for health services, $6.8 million worth. More than $500,000 paid for homeland security costs and a quarter of a million went to firefighters.

Roughly three days worth of slot machine revenue could have paid all of that combined.

"How do you justify taking any federal grant money?" asked Kelly. "There are 2,000 Mohegans that rely on Mohegan Sun as a tax base and it may not always be here," said Bunnell. "And there's some fear among the Mohegans if they cut all ties to the federal government then they will lose the opportunity, if needed, to make sure that the money that was promised to them is available," Bunnell said.

Far from any card shuffling is Nipmuc Nation Chief Walter Vickers in South Grafton, MA. "The way the money is going right now," said Vickers, "I don't believe it's fair."

His tribe's transportation business is stalled. And almost everything on their four-acre reservation needs to be repaired."We're just trying to survive as a tribe," said Vickers.

The Nipmucs have tried for 30 years to get federal recognition. Without it, they're shut out of grants and they fall further behind other tribes. "I'm not going to begrudge them of what they're getting but I think it could be thinned out a little bit and shared with others," said Vickers.

Tribes don't apply for every dollar they receive. Some of it is earmarked for them. To be clear, there's nothing illegal going on here. The question is whether the way the money is distributed is fair. "If we're going to do favors for the Indians to make up for the broken treaties then all the Indians should be benefiting, not just a few people at the top, and unfortunately, that's not often the way it works," said Anderson.

While some argue this money is owed to the tribes to make up for the government's seizure of their land centuries ago, others believe it's time for Congress to change the grant formula so the money will go to the tribes who truly need it the most.

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