California tribes mull unified front to keep racetracks from offering online poker

california-tribes-unifed-front-online-pokerAmaya Gaming’s path to launching PokerStars in California became slightly less obstructed this week after a prominent tribe appeared to back away from its previous antagonism toward so-called ‘bad actors.’

As recently as last month, a seven-tribe coalition led by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians wrote to California Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer expressing opposition to his “fatally flawed” AB 167 online poker legislation. At the heart of the coalition’s ire is the bill’s lack of a prohibition on “unscrupulous entities and brands” – aka PokerStars and any other sites that took wagers from state residents post-UIGEA – playing any role in the state’s regulated online poker market.

On Saturday, longtime tribal gaming reporter Dave Palermo posted a piece to OnlinePokerReport detailing an apparent about face by the Pechangas on the bad actors issue following discussions at Tuesday’s National Indian Gaming Association convention in San Diego.

Palermo quoted a tribal official saying the issues surrounding bad actors and their ‘tainted assets’ – software, databases, brands, etc. – could be worked out. The tribes believe a united front on the poker issue would offer sufficient muscle to defeat their common enemy – the state’s racetracks.

The development was foreshadowed in February, when Pechanga attorney Steve Bodner told a gaming conference that the tracks were the Pechanga’s main concern. But the coalition followed that up a couple weeks later with their virulently anti-PokerStars letter, which suggested the bad actors issue remained a sore point.

The tribes are of the opinion that poker is the sole responsibility of the state’s federally recognized tribes and licensed cardrooms. As such, allowing the tracks to offer online poker would represent an unauthorized expansion of gambling and a violation of tribal gaming compacts.

The tracks have countered with the not unreasonable argument that they are currently the only entities in the state with any experience offering online gambling and thus there’s no logical justification for excluding them from the online poker marketplace. The tracks have significant support among state legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown has gone on record saying he wouldn’t sign any poker bill that left the tracks empty handed.

The Pechanga now believe that such legislative opposition would crumble under the weight of a unified tribal front. Palermo quoted a tribal official saying he’d “like to see any legislator try to get in front of that train.” Any poker bill would require the support of two-thirds of elected officials in each of the state’s legislative bodies.

Palermo said the tribes remain split on how to proceed, with some tribes – including the Rincon and Pala Bands of Luiseño Indians and the United Auburn Indian Community – expressing a willingness to compete against the tracks online. Other tribes believe the tracks should be bought off with a subsidy derived from a slice of online poker revenue. The tracks have stated that they’re not interested in a subsidy, the permanence of which would be subject to the whims of politicians.

Robert Martin, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which is part of PokerStars’ California coalition, said Tuesday’s meeting was the first talk he’d had with Pechanga chairman Mark Macarro “in a long, long time.” Martin said Macarro believes the tribes are “pretty closely aligned except when it comes to the tracks. I agree with him.” The tribes have agreed to continue discussing the issue.