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On Dec. 29, 2000 -- his last day as director of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs -- Kevin Gover signed paperwork legitimizing a band of 53 people, most of them children, as the sovereign Koi Nation. He took the action even though members of his own staff warned him in a memo, made available to SF Weekly, that the designation was unwarranted and that he might be violating federal law in granting the Koi tribal status.
Now, owing to a quirk of federal gaming law, this landless band of Pomo Indians stands ready to reap untold riches. The tribe does not need the consent of California's governor to open a Las Vegas-style slot palace near Oakland International Airport. Once the federal government declares a 35-acre parking lot where the casino would be built as its "reservation," the Koi Nation will be a casino developer's dream come true.
Florida real estate mogul Alan Ginsburg is that lucky developer.
Ginsburg, who is also backing the landless Scott's Valley Band of Pomo in its attempt to build a Vegas-style casino up the road in Richmond, has spared no expense in assembling an array of lawyers, ethnographers, public relations consultants, and lobbyists to help the Koi attain their multimillion-dollar casino. Chief among those on the Ginsburg team pitching for the tribe is -- you guessed it -- Kevin Gover.
Although BIA officials have often passed through the revolving door to work for Indian interests, Gover's financial connection to the tribe whose federal recognition he engineered has raised eyebrows among even some of Indian Country's more jaded critics. "You build a trough and then you go feed in it. What else can you say about that?" says Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "In my mind, he went out [of office] like a thief in the night."
As the oldest of three children born to a white mother and a Pawnee father in Oklahoma, Gover, now 50, arrived at BIA with both an impressive personal story and no shortage of critics.
The son of civil rights workers, he had caught the eye of an aristocratic VISTA volunteer who arranged for him to go away to a New England prep school on scholarship at age 15. He went on to obtain an undergraduate degree at Princeton and to attend law school at the University of New Mexico. After working at a prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm, he returned to Albuquerque and opened his own practice, which grew to become one of the nation's largest Indian law firms.
When President Bill Clinton nominated him to head BIA in 1996, it was Gover's second time around. He had been offered the job in 1992 and had turned it down. (A recovering alcoholic, Gover has said that he hadn't quit drinking at the time.) After he accepted the post in 1996, anti-gaming forces raised a ruckus, accusing him of being a mouthpiece for casino gambling. It hadn't helped that he had rather infamously gone to a White House coffee a few months before his appointment and forked over $50,000 to the Democratic National Committee on behalf of a New Mexico casino operated by one of his tribal clients.
By virtue of his being a former BIA director, Gover, who now teaches Indian law at Arizona State University, is a marquee name among Indian gaming consultants. Records show that within a year of leaving the bureau, he went to work for casino deal-maker Gary Fears, a controversial figure who has been involved with the Seminole in Florida and at least two California tribes, the Timbisha Shoshone and the Guidiville Band of Pomo. (The latter tribe, which is now partnered with Harrah's, the Nevada gaming giant, and another developer, wants to open an East Bay casino at Richmond's Point Molate, just four miles from the San Pablo card club the Lytton Band of Pomo seeks to convert into a Las Vegas-style gambling mecca.)
Gover has also provided services to the Scott's Valley Band of Pomo, the other tribe Ginsburg is sponsoring in the Bay Area, which wants to plop a casino into unincorporated North Richmond.
In an interview with the Weekly in October, Gover downplayed his connection with the Koi Nation, aka Lower Lake Rancheria, while avoiding discussing the details of his decision to award recognition to the tribe. "I had virtually nothing to do with [Ginsburg's] relationship with Lower Lake," Gover said. "I had, I believe, one meeting with Lower Lake." (He did not return calls seeking comment for this article.) Yet, when the tribe appeared before a special session of the Oakland City Council in January in an effort to win a resolution favorable to the casino, Gover was clearly the headliner. "We've developed quite a fantastic team," Tribal Chair Daniel Beltran told the elected officials before introducing the ex-BIA director as "a leading expert in Indian law and regulatory issues."
With only Mayor Jerry Brown and one of Oakland's eight council members on record as favoring the casino, Gover's pitch didn't appear to be well-received. He may not have helped his cause by taking a jab at casino opponents, suggesting that "to the extent that the issue has been prejudged, that probably diminishes [their] credibility" with the federal Department of the Interior, which will have the final say in the matter. The remark triggered a somewhat tense exchange between Councilwoman Jean Quan, who opposes the casino, and Gover about his role with the tribe.