On the look out for suspicious activity and dirty money

Jim Adams
3/24/03

WASHINGTON - Terrorists, drug dealers and assorted mobsters have one need in common. They need a way to hide where their money comes from. For a long time, this process has been called "money laundering," making dirty money look clean, and for a long time U.S. law enforcement has realized that one of the best ways to get at the bad guys is to track how they handle their cash.

Tribal casinos are part of the effort, along with all other financial institutions. They haven't been a very big focus, certainly not compared to major international banks, who seem to have a great deal of dirty laundry, or even to neighborhood check cashing services which send money overseas. But new federal rules that take effect March 25 will be giving Indian gaming officials a bigger role to play.

All casinos and card rooms, not just tribal facilities but also a number of smaller Las Vegas outfits previously exempt, will be required to file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a bureau of the U.S. Treasury.

FINCEN, as it's know, has been in business since the late 1980s to coordinate a flood of paperwork that when properly analyzed has been a goldmine for federal prosecutors. The main tool has been the Currency Transaction Report (CTR), which all banks and other money-handlers have to file when someone deposits more than $10,000 in cash.

After the 9-11 attacks, the money-laundering hunt grew white-hot. Security forces realized that cash flow was the most vulnerable aspect of terrorist plotting. Treasury agents focused on off-the-books networks of currency transfers like the Middle Eastern hawala. The Patriots Act expanded the government's enforcement power.

The now mandatory Suspicious Activity Report throws the net wider than previous tools. It applies to transactions of $5,000 and higher or situations that, as the name suggests, are "suspicious." Say someone on the gaming floor buys $4,500 in chips and then cashes them in 10 minutes later. And does the same thing over and over. That would warrant a report to FINCEN. Jane Fisher, a FINCEN spokesperson, emphasizes that the guidelines for casino managers aren't hard and fast; the rule in fact relies on the intuition of experienced gaming employees to tell when something is fishy. "They need to use their judgment," she told Indian Country Today.

Smaller Las Vegas casinos are grumbling a bit over the added paperwork. By some quirk in the rule making they were previously exempt. Frank Fahrenkopf, the well-connected president of the American Gaming Association, has stated that there has never been much evidence of money laundering through casinos. But the tribal gaming industry has been more than happy to cooperate. The National Indian Gaming Association recently conducted a training session on the new rules in cooperation with FINCEN, the FBI and other enforcement officials.

Fisher of FINCEN observes that tribal casinos have been filing these reports voluntarily for several years and that Treasury officials speak regularly at Indian gaming conferences. "We feel we have very good relations with the industry," she said.

Speaking of money laundering and mobsters, there's been another sighting of organized crime at Indian casinos. It's shown up not only on "The Sopranos" on HBO but now on USA Network's "The Dead Zone." The March 16 episode of the psychic thriller, loosely based on the Stephen King novel, revolves around supposed mafia financing of a fictitious Initiative 151 in Maine to authorize tribal casinos. (Since the episode was written and filmed, a very real casino initiative has qualified for the Maine ballot this November, but it doesn't have that designation.)

In the alternative Maine of "The Dead Zone," psychic Johnnie Smith, played by Anthony Michael Hall, has to figure out a gangland killing. His trail takes him to the fictitious Hollow Horn Resort Casino owned by the Mahopiac tribe in the un-fictitious Berkshire town of Stockbridge, Mass. (once home to the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans.) To gain access to the casino manager Jonas, an Indian stereotype with roach and ponytail played by Steven Cree Molison, Smith uses his psychic powers to throw hard eights at the craps table and gets himself banned. Gangsters, meanwhile, swarm the place, just as Tony Soprano and his crew get VIP treatment at the Mohonk casino in eastern Connecticut.

This is fiction, of course. The Mohonk and Mahopiac tribes, from the viewpoint of the TV writers, are conveniently extinct, and Stockbridge is probably the last place in Massachusetts that would accept a casino, if and when the state allows one. Likewise, the sighting of a known mobster at a real casino, Indian or otherwise, would trigger major repercussions. The writers at the "Sopranos" and "The Dead Zone" don't seem to realize that casinos keep watch lists of undesirables who can't even go in their parking lots. (We recall that the Mohegan Sun once threw out an actor in another HBO series.)

The tribal casinos are going one further on the watch list in a program recently announced by the National Indian Gaming Association. In 2002, NIGA formed the Native American Intelligence Surveillance Information Network (Intelligence Network) to share information on potential criminal penetration of the casinos.

Said NIGA President Ernest Stevens Jr., "While there is often friendly competition among Indian casinos for customers, there's one area where cooperation makes more sense - keeping out cheaters and thieves. NIGA and the Intelligence Network are dedicated to developing, organizing and implementing a system that will share information about cheats, scams and frauds to prevent criminal activity. This is an innovative endeavor, surpassing the efforts of even Las Vegas and New Jersey."

Stevens emphasized that tribes have a huge stake in keeping their gaming industry clean, things like services for members, economic success and sovereignty. Regulation, and self-regulation, is the means for preserving these gains.

Critics of tribal casinos conveniently overlook these layers of controls. They very rarely mention industry initiatives like the Intelligence Network or tribal cooperation with federal law enforcement agencies like FINCEN. But these are very real and growing elements in the Indian gaming world.

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