Judge sides with N.M. in dispute over Pojoaque gaming compact

April 24, 2017 GMT

A federal appeals court has rejected an appeal by the U.S. Department of the Interior and Pojoaque Pueblo that would have given the agency the right to negotiate a gaming compact with the tribe over the objections of the state government.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Friday upheld a U.S. District Court judge’s decision earlier this year that blocked the Interior Department from taking any action in the case, which stems from a conflict between Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration and the pueblo over the amount of casino revenues the tribe would have to hand over to the state. The federal District Court judge also supported the state in its efforts to take action against any casino vendors that do business with Pojoaque Pueblo.

The pueblo has been operating Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino and other gambling operations without a compact with the state since a previous compact expired in June 2015. The tribe hasn’t reached a new deal with the state because it disagrees with the revenue-sharing requirement. The pueblo calls the revenue sharing an illegal tax.

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It was unclear Sunday whether the pueblo would take any further action in the case. Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. Joe Talachy said he and his administration are still reviewing the court’s decision.

“I don’t have any comment yet,” he said. “We are reviewing our options and will look at what it all means.”

For the time being, the appeals court ruling serves as a victory for the state.

Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email Sunday, “We hope the Court of Appeals decision will bring this issue to a close. As we’ve said all along, we’re simply asking for Pojoaque to play by the same rules as other New Mexico tribes.”

The pueblo’s leaders have argued that it is illegal for New Mexico to require tribes with casino operations to share their gambling revenues. The pueblo also accused the governor of negotiating its compact in bad faith and asked the secretary of the interior to step in and approve a gambling deal instead.

Martinez has said the pueblo is operating its casinos illegally since its compact expired.

The appeals court, in its ruling, agreed with the District Court’s judge’s decision that siding with the pueblo and the Interior Department in the case would have “stripped New Mexico of certain procedural protections or benefits” from the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The appeals court also ruled that the Interior Department’s possible interference in the gambling deal was not a “valid exercise of DOI’s authority under IGRA.”

Had the court sided with the pueblo, it could have drastically changed the way tribal gaming compacts are created in New Mexico, allowing tribes to bypass the state government and deal directly with the Interior Department instead.

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In March, after the state said it would take action against vendors who do business with Pojoaque Pueblo’s casinos, Talachy told The New Mexican that the pueblo’s casinos had to shut down many of their gaming machines because companies that supplied those devices had backed off on deals. At that time, he said the loss of those machines delivered “a very painful hit” to the pueblo. “We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Damon Martinez, who resigned earlier this year at the request of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, gave Pojoaque Pueblo permission to continue its gambling operations while the case was under appeal. That deal required the pueblo to put some gaming revenues into a fund that would be shared with the state when a new compact is reached.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.