POJOAQUE PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) – The top federal prosecutor in New Mexico said Tuesday he will allow Pojoaque Pueblo’s two casinos to remain open pending the outcome of a federal court case.
Uncertainty has been swirling because the tribe’s gambling compact with the state was set to expire at midnight Tuesday. Under federal law, tribes must have compacts in place if they want to operate casinos.
Four tribes have signed new agreements with Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, but Pojoaque remained embroiled in a dispute with the state and the case is pending before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
The tribe has alleged the governor’s administration hadn’t negotiated in good faith after compact negotiations broke down and wanted the U.S. Interior Department to approve a compact.
The state sued, and now the federal agency and pueblo are appealing a lower court’s ruling in favor of the state.
“I believe that the public interest is best served by maintaining the status quo while the appeal in the 10th Circuit litigation is pending,” U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said in a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon.
Martinez said he would not bring an enforcement action against Pojoaque as long as the pueblo continues to operate its Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino and Cities of Gold Casino north of Santa Fe according to the terms of the expiring compact.
Closing the casinos, Martinez said, would short-circuit the efforts of the pueblo, the state and the Interior Department to determine their rights through the appeals process.
He also said his decision will protect the interests of residents in the Pojoaque Valley, shield other tribes with casinos from unfair competitive disadvantage, and safeguard funds that would have gone to the state under the revenue-sharing agreement outlined in the compact.
Gubernatorial spokesman Michael Lonergan said the U.S. attorney’s statement and decision to delay action against Pojoaque does leave many questions unanswered, however.
“For example, the U.S. attorney is ill-equipped to ensure that proper payout percentages are maintained or to monitor gaming machines for tampering. Additionally, the U.S. attorney’s decision provides no protection to banks, credit card vendors, gaming machine vendors, advertisers, bondholders, and others that are now doing business with an illegal gambling enterprise,” Lonergan added in a statement. “While every other gaming tribe in the state has made responsible decisions to ensure their continued successful and safe operations, Pojoaque continues on a reckless path that places the burden on their stakeholders, employees, patrons and neighboring tribes.”
Under the terms of the compact, Pojoaque was required to pay 8 percent of its net winnings to the state. Pojoaque has agreed to deposit those funds into an account overseen by an independent trustee.
In a letter sent Sunday to the U.S. attorney’s office, Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Joseph Talachy said his tribe was committed to maintaining its gambling operations at the levels provided for under the 2001 compact.
Specifically, Pojoaque will not add any machines or gaming tables, expand the hours of operation or change any bet limits.
Tribes that operate casinos in New Mexico reported more than $731 million in net winnings last year. Net winnings are the amount wagered on gambling machines, minus the prizes won on those machines and regulatory fees.
In early June, compacts that allowed four other tribes to operate casinos for another two decades received final approval following a review by the Interior Department.
Those agreements – approved by the Legislature and the governor in the spring following years of negotiations – allow tribal casinos to stay open around the clock, extend credit to certain high-rolling patrons and offer a limited amount of complimentary food and lodging.
Nine other tribes operate under different compacts, which were approved in 2007 and won’t expire until 2037.