Seven months after the Coeur d’Alene Indians announced their national telephone lottery, the new building is still only a shell.
Only a handful of workers has been hired.
And no one has bought a ticket.
The reason: No phone company will touch the project.
Shortly after the February unveiling of the tribe’s National Indian Lottery, attorneys general across the United States began sending letters to phone companies, ordering them not to carry the 800 telephone number players would call to order tickets.
“One by one, they all bent to the AGs,” said Dave Matheson, the tribe’s gaming director.
A federal statute allows law enforcement agencies to prohibit phone companies from “transmitting or receiving gambling information” in violation of federal, state or local laws.
The tribe maintains its game is permitted under federal Indian gaming law. Critics - including numerous attorneys general - say the game is illegal.
Matheson said the tribe considers the bans an abuse of the attorneys’ power. Now, after months in legal limbo, the tribe is going on the offensive.
“We are preparing to go to court,” said Matheson. “The named defendants will be the phone companies.”
He declined to say which ones. The tribe plans a press conference on the issue next Wednesday. The tribe’s business partner, Unistar Gaming Corp. of Denver, is paying legal costs.
A lawsuit, Matheson said, is the only way to get a judge to rule on the legality of the embattled lottery.
“We’re hopeful that we can get some early disposition to keep going while the court case goes on,” Matheson said. “We know we’re right.”
At least eight states, he said, sent out the letters to phone companies.
In Rhode Island, Attorney General Jeffrey Pine sent a letter to NYNEX, AT&T;, Sprint Communications and MCI.
“Attorney General Sends Warning to Phone Companies: Coeur d’Alene ‘800’ Telephone Number Gambling Is Prohibited in Rhode Island,” said a press release Pine’s office sent out.
In Florida, Attorney General Robert Butterworth ordered phone companies in his state to block any transmission of the Coeur d’Alenes’ number.
The Coeur d’Alenes unveiled their lottery in March. The game would raise millions for the 1,300-member tribe, they said, and bring badly needed jobs to the reservation south of Coeur d’Alene. When the National Indian Gaming Commission OK’d the lottery in February, tribal officials said a double rainbow appeared over the tribe’s bingo hall.
But clouds quickly gathered. Shares of Unistar Gaming Corp. stock have steadily sagged from a peak of about $16 in early April to about $9.50 today. Matheson blames the states.
Unistar spokesman Phil Smith wouldn’t comment on the drooping stock value.
“I think we’re making good progress,” he said. “I think we’ll have interesting developments to announce next week.”
Matheson blames simple selfinterest for the states’ resistance to the lottery. The attorneys general, he feels, are afraid the Indian lottery will compete with state lotteries.
The lottery has also drawn fire on Capitol Hill, where New York and New Jersey congressmen have proposed a bill that would effectively outlaw it. Members of the House Ways and Means Committee have also introduced a bill to tax Indian gaming revenues at 34 percent.
Ironically, the battle over the lottery comes at the same time Indians are fighting cutbacks in federal funding to tribes. A Congressional committee on Tuesday agreed to pare back the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget by 12 percent, stripping away nearly $205 million.
“It’s kind of darned if you do, darned if you don’t,” Matheson said. “They cut off federal support to you, but on the other hand, they’re going to prevent you from trying to do something on your own. It’s hypocrisy at its highest.”
Still, he said, the tribe is determined to make the lottery fly.
“With faith and prayer and justice on our side,” he said, “we have to believe we will prevail.”