Pueblo Claims State Interference

In New Mexico, the Pojoaque Pueblo filed a lawsuit in federal court against the state, the governor and the gaming control board. The pueblo wants the court to block those officials from taking action against vendors that service the Pojoaque's two casinos, which are still open although the pueblo's state gaming compact expired.

Pojoaque Pueblo recently filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the state of New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez and members of the state Gaming Control Board in federal court. The lawsuit asks the court to block New Mexico from taking action against vendors that do business with Pojoaque and to award the pueblo hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue if the board fails to renew licenses for those vendors. The board recently voted to defer action on some gambling companies’ license renewals in case those manufacturers may not continue doing business with the Pojoaque.

Pueblo leaders said the state officials are illegally interfering with its casino business operations, since their gambling compact expired June 30. The Pojoaque Pueblo owns the Buffalo Thunder and Cities of Gold casinos north of Santa Fe.

Pojoaque Pueblo Governor Joseph Talachy said, “Basically, the agenda is, in order for the state to keep those vendors from doing business with us, they’re threatening their licenses. They’re trying to attack us in another way.” The lawsuit claims the gaming board wants to stop suppliers from providing services and replacing gambling equipment, which would breach their contracts with the pueblo, leading to loss of revenue, layoffs, reduced government services on the pueblo, “a major economic downturn for the economy of the entire Pojoaque Valley region” and possibly the closure of the casinos. Court filings indicate the pueblo provides 1,500 jobs and has a $43 million payroll.

Martinez’s spokesman Michael Lonergan called the lawsuit “frivolous” and indicated the Pojoaque “want to play by a different set of rules than other New Mexico tribes.” He added the lawsuit is “clearly intended to intimidate state regulators and impede them from enforcing the law and doing their jobs.” Lonergan noted the state and the governor refuse to be “bullied” into a position that would harm the state and other tribes that are operating their casinos legally.

Gaming Control Board members said the lawsuit is “a bad faith effort to interfere with the board’s legitimate statutory and regulatory authority over its licensees. The Gaming Control Board will not be intimidated into relinquishing its regulatory responsibilities by baseless and harassing litigation.”

Although the compact expired, U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez (no relation to the governor) declared the pueblo’s casinos could remain open until a separate lawsuit before the U.S. Court of Appeals is decided. That lawsuit is in regard to the pueblo’s attempt to negotiate a new compact with the federal government instead of the state, since it said the state failed to negotiate a new compact in good faith. Until the court rules, the Pojoaque agreed to put 8 percent of net slots win, as required by the expired compact, into an escrow account instead of paying it to the state.

Despite the U.S. Attorney’s decision, the governor and the Gaming Control Board said the pueblo is operating its casinos illegally. The Santa Clara Pueblo agrees; it recently wrote to Kevin Washburn, deputy secretary of Indian affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior, asking him to shut down the Pojoaque casinos.

Santa Clara Pueblo Governor J. Michael Chavarria said allowing the Pojoaque Pueblo to continue operating its casinos without a gambling compact with the state gives Pojoaque “a huge competitive advantage” over other casino-owning tribes in New Mexico. The Santa Clara Pueblo operates a casino in Española.

Chavarria wrote, “We also are curious at just who is going to provide any monitoring of Pojoaque’s gaming operations to assure that even the minimal commitments it made are being complied with. We do not see the U.S. Attorney undertaking any such function and despite lofty sounding commitments and assurances, it appears that for the time being, at least, Pojoaque will be operating under a substantially less restrictive regulatory environment than the other gaming tribes, with significantly less financial obligations.”

Other New Mexico tribes have renewed their casino agreements with the state.