Controversy over Indian tribe's grant grab

Eyewitness News Exclusive
December 2, 2007 10:20:31 AM PST
The Eyewitness News Investigators take a look at how your tax dollars are being used to help an Indian tribe. But it's not just any tribe, it's the richest one on Earth.Tax dollars are going to maintain their roads and shovel their snow.

To be clear, there is nothing illegal going on here. But is it fair to taxpayers?

A Connecticut Indian tribe, which owns the fabulously successful Foxwoods Casino, is a big recipient of your tax dollars, which are used for tractor mowing, Indian basket exhibits and the study of wildlife.

The world's most successful casino, located in Connecticut, has made its owners, the Manshantucket Peqouts, the wealthiest tribe on Earth.

Their gated reservation could be the envy of many country clubs with spacious homes, tennis courts, swimming pools.

"What they can't afford to mow their own lawn they have to have the taxpayers pay for that?" said Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Tom Schatz questions why taxpayers are paying for maintenance on the richest reservation.

"It seems to me they can afford to do their own maintenance and not run to the federal government for handouts," Schatz said.

Documents we've obtained show the Pequots have perfected getting government handouts -- millions of dollars each year in taxpayer funded grants. It's money for road maintenance, fire protection equipment and training, tribal education, police gear, even money for snow removal, and tractor mowing.

In all, at least $17 million dollars in grants in the last five years goes to a tribe that doesn't pay a penny in federal taxes from their casino profits estimated at a billion a year.

"These are not basic needs for the tribe. These seem to be something that could be done by the tribe on its own," Schatz said.

The tribe declined an interview for this story, but defended its windfall in federal funds saying it uses some of the money to fund a regional health care clinic for Native Americans from other tribes, and that it kicks in $2 million of its own money to run the clinic.

A group representing Indian tribes from around the nation says the Pequots are no different than state governments when it comes to getting federal money.

"If the state of Connecticut is making as much money as they are they can pay their own bills. So why does the state of Connecticut take the transportation dollars, why do they take the Medicaid dollars?" said Jacqueline Jackson of the National Congress American Indians.

The Shinnecock Indian tribe on Long Island can only dream of the Pequots casino fortunes. They have been trying for 30 years to get federal recognition.

Without that recognition, the tribe remains mired in poverty, not only because they can't build a casino, but they remain shut out of many of the grants that the wealthy, federally recognized Pequots get year-after-year.

"We have so many young people who do not have adequate housing. So when we look at this, and then we see federal dollars going to a cash-rich tribe, yes, it is a little disheartening," said Lance Gums, a Shinnecock Tribal trustee

The Shinnecocks say it's a classic case of the haves and have nots: while they struggle to keep their community fed and educated, the Pequots and other casino-rich tribes reap the rewards of taxpayer funded grants, such as a $10,000 for a Pequot traveling exhibition of Native American baskets or $82,000 to study wildlife.

"Unless Congress changes the law the tribes can go out and get whatever they're eligible for. Until then it takes some public pressure to say, the money should be going where its most needed," Schatz said.

Some have argued the federal funds are owed the casino-rich tribes forever as payback for the taking of their land centuries ago.

Others say it's time to change the grant formula so that the poorer tribes get a larger share of the grants.