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Catawba tribal gambling faces legal fight

As the Catawba Indian Nation moves closer to launching a gambling operation state and local law enforcement officials say they're prepared to enforce the state's gambling laws.

They won't, however, comment on what specific actions, if any, they'd take against the Catawbas if and when that operation is underway.

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said his office will respond to any violations of state law and "take action we deem appropriate."

Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, said that any enforcement action would begin with a coordinated effort that includes Bryant and the York County Sheriff's Office.

Video poker and similar electronic gaming devices are illegal across South Carolina, except in state-authorized gambling cruises off the Charleston coast.

Last month, the Catawbas sued the state and Keel in his capacity as SLED chief for rights to have gambling on the reservation. The tribe wants to build a casino and two hotels there, arguing it will bring significant benefits to the region and state and employ tribal and non-tribal members in an area with historically high unemployment.

The state's only federally recognized tribe, the Catawbas trace their right to open a casino on the reservation back to a 1993 settlement agreement with the state and federal governments. The agreement says the tribe may permit on the reservation "video poker or similar electronic play devices to the same extent that the devices are authorized by state law."

In the lawsuit, the tribe alleges that, after the settlement agreement, state laws enacted in 2005 to allow casino boat gambling also give the tribe the right to have the same type of gambling on the reservation.

The tribe also requested a temporary injunction which, if granted by the court, would prevent law enforcement from seizing gambling machines or arresting tribal members until the lawsuit is settled.

Gambling details hazy

According to the tribe's attorney and a legal document, the Catawbas will have some type of gambling operation underway when a judge hears the tribe's request next week to stop law enforcement from seizing machines and arresting tribal members.

A brief filed Friday in Richland County says, "At the time of the hearing and the resulting order," scheduled for Feb. 23, the Catawbas will be operating gaming machines "and, as such, will be completely exposed to criminal and civil prosecution at the whim of the State."

But the tribe's chief and attorney won't provide specific details on what exactly that means: when the machines will arrive at the reservation, when they'll be operational, how many machines there will be, where they'll be set up, or who will have access.

When pressed Tuesday for details, Catawba Indian Chief Bill Harris deferred questions to the tribe's attorney, Wally Fayssoux of Greenville, and apologized for being "evasive."

But Fayssoux said Monday that no gambling is taking place on the reservation at present, nor has the tribe tried to "sneak" in any machines. The tribe is preparing to launch its gaming operation, he said.

Fayssoux wouldn't comment on whether the Catawbas have already purchased gaming machines, but said the tribe has already made a "huge investment" in getting ready.

Harris said Tuesday that "the settlement agreement clearly states that the tribe is entitled to have that which the state has authorized," and if the judge rules in favor of the tribe, "the tribe will move forward with its gaming operation," Harris said.

"We will do everything in our power to make it a quick opening," he said, without saying whether that meant the tribe would wait until the judge's ruling to commence gambling activities.

"I don't intend on trying to follow up on that statement that they made," Keel said. If the Catawbas are operating prohibited gaming devices, "It will get to us in the right time and through the right source of information," he said.

Law enforcement's course of action won't change "because they've advertised it," he said.

"We're not going to follow that path that they may want us to go down," said Keel, without commenting further on what that path might be.

New machines in S.C.

A new type of electronic gaming machine has "proliferated" across the state, Keel said.

Some authorities say the new machines - marketed as "sweepstakes" devices that sell products, such as phone cards or Internet services, and provide an opportunity to win prizes - aren't illegal under state law, including ex-SLED Chief Reggie Lloyd, now an attorney in a private practice in Columbia whose representing several companies that have developed the machines.

Keel said law enforcement would enforce the law on those that are in violation.

But the Catawbas aren't talking about bringing in the new machines whose legality will have to be decided in the courts, said Solicitor Kevin Brackett of the 16th Judicial Circuit which includes York County.

They're talking about having the same devices offered on the gambling cruises, "old school" video poker machines, and it's illegal to own or operate them, he said.

Of the Catawbas' plan, Brackett said, "These machines are illegal and if they put them up there, absent any court order not to, we will do what we are obliged to do," which is remove them, he said.

Local authorities have seized gambling machines before, and will continue to enforce the law, he said.

The S.C. Attorney General's Office, which will represent the state and SLED in the suit, plans to file a response by the end of the week and wouldn't comment on its position until then, said Mark Plowden, communications director.

"Because this is a pending legal matter, I have to speak directly from the legal documents" which aren't yet available, he said, offering one statement:

"We absolutely disagree with the Catawbas' notion that they can operate video poker gaming legally inside the state of South Carolina," Plowden said.

The Associated Press and Herald Business Editor Don Worthington contributed

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