Jackpot

How four tiny Indian tribes, with help from powerful gambling interests, are trying to transform the Bay Area into a slot machine Mecca

For now, however, the Guidivilles' main sponsor is battling on two fronts. Besides the dispute with Ginsburg, Levine is locked in a conflict with oil giant ChevronTexaco, which has a refinery at Point Molate and does not want a casino as its next-door neighbor, citing security concerns. Caught in the middle are Richmond officials. At the time this article went to press, the nine-member City Council had delayed for weeks in deciding whether to accept Upstream's offer to buy 225 acres at Point Molate for $50 million -- and perhaps reap many millions more should the tribe succeed in putting a casino there -- or settle for the $80 million that the oil company has suggested it may be willing to pay.

Even in the Point Molate dispute there is evidence of jockeying between Ginsburg's and Levine's forces. Among the players Ginsburg has assembled to push the Scott's Valley tribe's casino ambitions are prominent East Bay Democratic consultant Eric Zell and heavyweight Sacramento Republican consultant Ray McNally. But Zell also has ChevronTexaco as a client. And several Richmond City Council members, including some who are up for re-election, were miffed recently when it was revealed that Zell's firm was behind a controversial phone bank operation in which Richmond voters were asked if they favored a casino at Point Molate. Those who stated that they were opposed were transferred directly to the office of one or another member of the City Council. "It looks like a way to try and make sure we only heard from people who were opposed [to the casino]," says Councilman Nat Bates, a casino supporter. "How ethical is that?"

Other moments in the casino battle have been almost surreal. Such was the case in September after ChevronTexaco sought a restraining order to prevent Richmond from striking a deal with Upstream. A lawyer claiming to represent members of the Miwok Band of Ione Indians requested to argue in favor of the restraining order on grounds that Point Molate is a sacred Miwok burial site. But Miwok Tribal Chair Matthew Franklin said that the lawyer's views were not those of the tribe and that the Miwok have no objection to a casino at Point Molate. A few days later, the same attorney was back before the judge -- part of the team representing ChevronTexaco.


Don Arnold, chairman of the Scott's Valley Band of 
Pomo. His tribe's casino ambitions are underwritten by 
Florida investor Alan Ginsburg.
Paolo Vescia
Don Arnold, chairman of the Scott's Valley Band of Pomo. His tribe's casino ambitions are underwritten by Florida investor Alan Ginsburg.
A sign beckons gamblers to the San Pablo card club, 
where the Lyttons want to open a casino.
Paolo Vescia
A sign beckons gamblers to the San Pablo card club, where the Lyttons want to open a casino.

When it comes to tossing a hat into the casino ring, perhaps no tribe has done it with more subtlety than the Lower Lake Rancheria-Koi Nation. Rather than hold a news conference to unveil its plans, the tribe earlier this month issued a one-page press release declaring its intent to build a glitzy casino, resort, and spa near Oakland International Airport. The press release announced that the tribe had begun "government-to-government talks" with Oakland officials aimed at building a casino that would create 4,000 jobs and pump $1 billion into the area's economy.

Nowhere did it mention that the person behind the venture is Alan Ginsburg.

With only 30 members, nearly half of them children, Lower Lake is the smallest and newest of the restored Pomo tribes. Its chairman, Daniel Beltran, is a former pickup-and-delivery worker. His brother, Dino, who used to manage a restaurant, is the tribe's treasurer. Nowadays they work full time on the tribe's behalf to acquire a casino, their efforts underwritten by East Bay Gaming, another of Ginsburg's entities.

Despite the wait-and-see attitude he has exhibited publicly, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has quietly sought to whip up interest in a possible casino in his city for several years. He is known to have discussed the matter with Donald Trump as early as 2000, and sources say Brown has met with the leaders of at least a half-dozen tribes, including several Pomo bands, to float the idea. "With other possible casinos being talked about just up the way from us, we would be crazy not to consider one of our own," says Oakland Councilman Larry Reid, in whose district Ginsburg is pushing the Lower Lake project.

Landless since 1914, the Santa Rosa-based tribe is another of the Pomo bands set adrift by Eisenhower's assimilation policy before finally managing to regain federal recognition. But it's how Lower Lake was able to do so that sets the tribe apart. In January 2001, on his last day in office, Kevin Gover used his authority as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to sign a rare administrative order granting the tribe the legal status it coveted.

Since then, Gover has become a political consultant to Ginsburg, advising him on how to help Lower Lake and other tribes -- including Scott's Valley -- to navigate the arcane federal process for getting land placed into trust for casino purposes. Records show that he also registered as a lobbyist on behalf of Ginsburg's associate, Gary Fears, in April 2002, just before Fears began dealing with the Guidivilles.

Now a professor of Indian law at Arizona State University, Gover correctly points out that his relationship with Ginsburg does not violate rules governing the activities of federal officials once they leave office. "I cannot appear before the Department [of the Interior] on any matter in which I had substantial and personal involvement, nor would I," he says. He furthermore insists that he has had "virtually nothing" to do with Ginsburg's relationship with the Lower Lake tribe.

All the same, Tribal Chairman Daniel Beltran thinks his people are in good hands. "Mr. Ginsburg is a wonderful man," he says. "He's very understanding of what we're trying to do."

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