Congressman would help Catawbas

New life for high-stakes bingo?

COLUMBIA -- U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn said Friday that, if asked, he would help the Catawba Indian tribe get federal approval it would need to offer high-stakes bingo.

Clyburn said the tribe has not approached him about pushing Congress to include the Catawbas under the federal Indian Gaming Regulation Act, which would put the tribe in the high-stakes bingo business. And he noted during a Columbia news conference that the Catawba's Rock Hill reservation is not in his congressional district.

However, "If they approached me about something that would be helpful in my district, I would help," said Clyburn, majority whip of the U.S. House, which makes him the body's third most powerful member.

Columbia attorney Dwight Drake, who represents the Catawbas, said he felt the tribe was due the same rights as any other federally recognized tribe.

"Congressional action would resolve that right away," Drake said of adding the Catawbas to the federal Indian Gaming Regulation Act. "I hadn't asked anybody for that. I and the tribe welcome that."

The Catawbas have long wanted to open a high-stakes bingo parlor in Santee, an Orangeburg County town off Interstate 95 that is in Clyburn's district.

Because of legislative opposition, Congress may be the tribe's only hope of getting the electronic bingo games that could offer prizes of more than $100,000 This week, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ended the tribe's legal bid to get into the high-stakes bingo business.

The Catawbas sued the state in 2004, arguing it should be able to get into high-stakes gaming because its traditional bingo parlors have lost about half their revenue. The suit blamed competition with the state-run lottery, which began in 2002.

A 1993 agreement with the state that put the Catawbas in the bingo business prohibits the tribe from offering prizes of more than $100,000.

Clyburn recommended the Catawbas, the state's only federally recognized tribe, seek federal authority to run the games in 2003, as it was mulling its lawsuit.

That suggestion was met with criticism from other S.C. members of Congress.

"(U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett) has fought against such efforts in the past and would do so again," said the Westminster Republican's spokeswoman Brecke Latham.

Lawmakers in the General Assembly fear that if Congress acts the state would lose control of gambling in S.C.

"The most extreme thing would be to come under the Indian Gaming Regulation Act," said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York.

The Catawbas' 1993 agreement with the state and federal government is sharply different from the federal act that controls other Indian tribes' gambling activities.

It prohibits the high-stakes form of electronic bingo the Catawbas want, which could have a multistate presence, similar to that of other Indian tribes.

"We don't support any expansion of gambling in South Carolina outside of what is already laid out in the Catawbas' 1993 agreement with the state," said Joel Sawyer, spokesman for Republican Gov. Mark Sanford.

While there is little question the 1993 agreement limits the kinds and scope of gambling the Catawbas may engage in, Sawyer contends it also forbids the Catawbas from taking part in the Indian Gaming Regulation Act.

"If the Catawbas want to change the terms of that agreement, they need to negotiate with the General Assembly to change what all parties agreed to then, rather than trying to make an end run around the state to Washington," Sawyer said.

Even with a Democratic Congress, Clyburn, the state's most powerful congressional leader, made no promises about the success of such an effort.

"It's a simple thing to do it's not simple getting it done," he said.