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Pojoaque Offers To End Gaming Suit

By Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
    Longtime holdout Pojoaque Pueblo has offered to write the state a $6 million check— and begin paying a cut of its casino profits— to end its part in a federal gaming lawsuit dragging into its fourth year.
    But there is a hitch: The state Attorney General's Office says Pojoaque Pueblo owes more like $20 million in casino revenue-sharing payments to the state.
    Despite the disparity in dollar estimates, last month's offer by Pojoaque could be significant: It marked the first time the pueblo has offered to pay to get out of the 2000 lawsuit filed by Attorney General Patricia Madrid, her office said Tuesday.
    Pojoaque Pueblo Lt. Gov. George Rivera this week said his tribe's negotiations with the state aren't over. And Sam Thompson, spokeswoman for Madrid, said, "Her door is always open to talking settlement terms."
    Meanwhile, the other tribe being sued by Madrid for refusing to pay revenue-sharing to the state— the Mescalero Apaches— also may now be open to discussing the matter.
    Mescalero President Mark Chino, who took office in January, said Tuesday the current, 10-member Tribal Council has not yet had a chance to discuss revenue-sharing. But he said he doesn't believe the council would take the "hard-line stance" of the previous administration.
    The former Mescalero administration "wasn't amenable to settling the case by any other means than litigation. Since I've taken office, it's kind of a new day, so to speak," Chino said.
    The Mescalero Apaches and Pojoaque Pueblo are the only two New Mexico tribes with casinos that refuse to pay a share of their slot-machine profits to the state. Both are being sued in the same lawsuit, which Madrid filed in federal court.
    Eleven other tribes signed 2001 compacts with the state and are paying up to 8 percent of their slot profits in exchange for limited gambling competition.
    Much is at stake in the federal case.
    If the state prevails, the Mescaleros and Pojoaque could be forced to pay millions in back revenue-sharing payments. If the two tribes win, their victory could derail the state's compacts with tribes that are paying revenue sharing.
    The tribes abiding by the 2001 compacts paid the state an estimated $32-plus million in revenue sharing in a recent one-year period, according to the New Mexico Indian Gaming Association.
    As part of the 2001 compacts, the tribes that signed on at that time also agreed to pay about $90 million in back payments to the state, stemming from earlier tribal protests.
    The Mescalero Apaches and Pojoaque Pueblo are challenging the legality of revenue sharing. The Mescaleros also have argued that the matter should be heard by an arbitrator rather than a federal judge.
    U.S. District Judge Bruce D. Black in December turned down the Mescalero motion to force arbitration, clearing the way for his decision on the legality of revenue sharing. But the Mescaleros later that month appealed the ruling to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Attorney General's Office said that likely means another year's delay.
    A Feb. 11 letter from Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Jacob Viarrial to Madrid discussed a Jan. 28 meeting between the pueblo and her office.
    "The Pueblo of Pojoaque has offered to pay $6,012,106 to settle all gaming disputes up the present," Viarrial wrote— adding that such a deal also would require the tribe to begin abiding by the 2001 gaming compacts.
    The Viarrial letter noted that Madrid wanted $20 million.
    "The Pueblo of Pojoaque must reject your offer. Whether the payment is $6,012,106 or $20 million, the payment is an illegal tax upon us," Viarrial wrote. "We have no choice but to return to litigation."
    Rivera, the pueblo's lieutenant governor, said a settlement "might be a good way to go if it's something the pueblo can live with." But he said $20 million is too high.
    He said he didn't know whether his tribe would present a counteroffer but added Pojoaque Pueblo will continue trying to resolve the matter through negotiations and the lawsuit.
    "There was obviously some reaching out on our part to settle it," Rivera said. "We're willing to talk, but by no means are we putting down our guard."