NIGC: Hogen’s out, Skibine’s in

Gale Courey Toensing
12/31/09

WASHINGTON – It started in April when the National Indian Gaming Association passed a resolution calling for the immediate resignation of National Indian Gaming Commission Chairman Philip Hogen, and asking the Obama administration to ensure that future appointees respect tribal governments by following the laws governing federal agencies.

It ended in October when Hogen stepped down and longtime BIA employee George Skibine, a member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, was appointed by the Obama administration to serve as interim chairman until President Barack Obama appoints a permanent replacement.

In the three months since his appointment, Skibine has moved to address many of the issues about which tribal leaders had voiced concern.

NIGA’s opposition to Hogen was fierce. Hogen, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and a Bush-era appointee, had remained in office long after his term had expired in 2005, the tribal leaders said. NIGA’s resolution boldly expressed tribal leaders’ unhappiness with the direction in which Hogen had led the commission.

The resolution said Hogen claimed exemption from executive orders requiring tribal consultation and a range of federal laws, including the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act mandates that protect tribal self-government, and the Federal Indian Employment Preference laws.

It called on the Obama administration to ensure appointees to the NIGC will act with respect for tribal governments by recognizing their law-making prerogatives and regulatory and licensing authority under IGRA. It asked for a commission chairman who would adhere to Indian preference in hiring; practice government-to-government consultation; and follow the statutes.

The complaints followed two years of harsh criticism from tribes as Hogen tried to push through a controversial set of regulations that would have drawn what he called “a bright line” between Class II and Class III gaming. The bright line would have classified virtually all Class II machines as Class III machines, requiring tribes without Class III compacts to pay states a cut of their profits. Hogen withdrew the proposed regulations in the fall of 2008 after a huge outcry particularly from the Class II gaming community.

“We had to fight tooth and nail to defend aggressive positions against our tribal sovereignty, a lack of consultation and things of that nature,” NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. said when the resolution was passed. “In my personal opinion, his (Hogen’s) era is over. It’s time to move on.”

Hogen remained in office, however, and in August, NIGA again asked Obama to immediately replace him and stop the commissioner from moving on proposed revisions to gaming regulations until the new official was in place.

Tribal leaders said Hogen was revising gaming machine regulations that would impose huge and unnecessary compliance costs on tribal gaming operations, and that he had exceeded the NIGC’s statutory authority.

Tribal members weren’t informed of or invited to the meeting at which the proposed regulations were discussed, and objected again to the lack of consultation.

Skibine, who is widely respected in Indian country, began to change the culture at NIGC as soon as he took over in early October.

One of his first acts was to put in place a one-year extension for tribal gaming authorities to implement new Class II gaming regulations.

Next, he settled a notice of violation with the Yakima Tribe for a minimal fine. Hogen had slapped the violation on Yakima for distributing per capita payments to its citizens last Christmas before the official paperwork was approved. The notice of violation, which could have resulted in fines of $25,000 a day, was inexplicably issued months after the distribution was approved.

In a recent interview, Skibine said he was looking into a number of issues that tribal leaders had complained about, including the lack of Indian preference hiring at NIGC. He also said he is against “the bright line” idea of reclassifying Class II machines as Class III, and does not consider the NIGC to be an independent entity since it operates within the Interior Department and the Interior secretary has the authority to remove commissioners.

Skibine is currently the principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in addition to his interim chairmanship at NIGC, but he said he is finding the chairmanship job very rewarding, because it’s a small agency and decisions can be made and implemented quickly without having to go through the layers of politics and approvals that slow things down in big agencies like the BIA.

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