Tribal Gaming Conflict In Carolinas Proves Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

September 27, 2021
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A Democratic congressman who may be the person most responsible for the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States has introduced a bill to help a South Carolina tribe build a casino-resort in North Carolina.

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A Democratic congressman who may be the person most responsible for the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States has introduced a bill to help a South Carolina tribe build a casino-resort in North Carolina.

A Republican senator who is a close confidant of former President Trump is supporting the same fledgling South Carolina tribal casino.

The ultimate fate of the controversial casino project may be determined by the National Indian Gaming Commission, which is troubled by the South Carolina tribe’s management contract with a businessman who has a checkered past, according to sources.

The Catawba Tribe of South Carolina already has broken ground on the $273m Two Kings Casino in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, which is about 35 miles northwest of the tribe’s reservation and about the same distance west of Charlotte.

At the very least, the Catawba casino underscores the potential for increased friction among tribes as the Indian gaming industry’s economic and political influence continues to grow.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris claims the land for the casino in North Carolina is within his tribe’s ancient boundaries and just eight miles from the site in northern South Carolina where the Catawba Tribe contributed to a decisive victory over the British in a crucial battle in 1780 during the American Revolutionary War.

But the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians owns two casinos in North Carolina and has criticized the Catawba casino as a classic case of so-called “reservation shopping”, which violates the spirit of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

The Catawba Tribe turned to North Carolina because South Carolina is one of the most gambling-restrictive states in the nation, and there are no casinos — commercial or tribal — within state lines.

Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina introduced a bill on March 8 in the House calling for congressional reaffirmation of a decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior to place 17 acres of North Carolina land into trust for the Catawba casino and essentially shielding the project from legal challenges.

Clyburn is not just any congressman.

He is the House Majority Whip, third in Democratic leadership behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

When Joe Biden’s presidential campaign teetered on the brink of the abyss in February 2020, Clyburn “changed everything,” according to the Washington Post, by endorsing Biden in the South Carolina primary.

Clyburn’s bill for the Catawba Tribe has bipartisan support from five co-sponsors, including two Republicans from South Carolina and three Democrats from North Carolina.

Clyburn introduced the bill apparently to provide an economic boost to the Catawba Tribe, which has a 28 percent poverty rate for families, nearly doubling the average in South Carolina.

The bill advanced to the House floor on August 13 after being approved by voice vote by the House Committee on Natural Resources.

The House is expected to pass the bill, and send it to the Senate where the Catawba Tribe’s champion is likely to be Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who has a lengthy record on gaming issues.

Despite being the target of repeated personal insults from Donald Trump, whom he challenged in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Graham has maintained a surprisingly steady relationship with the former president.

It was during the Trump administration in March 2020 that the U.S. Department of the Interior took the North Carolina land into trust for the Catawba casino.

Graham also was a loyal soldier for Sheldon Adelson, the legendary Las Vegas Sands CEO and chairman who died in January, in Adelson’s ultimately futile war on internet gambling.

In 2003, Graham blocked the Catawba tribe’s efforts to open a bingo hall, citing concerns about an expansion of the “Indian gaming problem.”

But Graham has since introduced legislation to protect the tribe’s gaming ambitions in North Carolina, with critics claiming that he changed his tune after the Catawba Tribe entered into a management contract with Wallace Cheves, who plans to use his company, Sky Boat Gaming, to develop the tribe’s casino.

Cheves also was a generous financial donor for Trump.

A federal court indicted Cheves on December 17, 2002 for illegal gambling, fraud and money laundering in Akron, Ohio.

All charges against Cheves were dropped on January 23, 2003, according to court records.

The National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), a federal agency overseeing tribal gaming, is not authorized under IGRA to regulate tribal casinos.

However, IGRA does empower the NIGC to reject management contracts deemed unfavorable to tribes operating casinos.

When asked about the Catawba Tribe’s management contract with Cheves, NIGC chief of staff Dustin Thomas said: “We don’t have a comment at this time.”

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