Tribe Paid For Madera Politician’s D.C. Trip

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City Council member testified for casino.

A Native American tribe that wants to build a casino near Madera paid for a city council member’s trip to Washington, D.C., last year so he could testify in favor of the project, interviews and recently filed court records show.

The council member, Gary Svanda, has been a vocal and longtime supporter of
the controversial project. When he testified in front of the U.S.
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May 2008, he said he was speaking
on behalf of the Madera City Council and the Madera County Board of
Supervisors, according to a hearing transcript. But neither the city
nor the county approved the trip, and some council members said they
didn’t find out about it until after he returned.

By state law, Svanda was supposed to report the cost of his flight and who paid for it. He never did.

Neither Svanda, the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians nor the
company that wants to build the casino — Las Vegas-based Station
Casinos — would say how much the flight and hotel stay cost, or even
which hotel Svanda stayed in.

watchdog groups say the trip was a conflict of interest because Svanda
was elected to represent Madera residents, not the tribe. Members of
the tribe also accompanied Svanda.

"When elected officials need
to travel in the service of their community, the public should pick up
the tab," said Douglas Heller, executive director of the nonpartisan
Consumer Watchdog group in Santa Monica. "It’s much more expensive in
the long run when special interests pay for travel because of the
indebtedness politicians inevitably feel."

In contrast, when
Frank Bigelow, a member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, went
on a similar trip in October 2007 to testify before the same committee,
the county paid his expenses — a $1,038 flight and a $422 one-night
hotel bill, records show.

Bigelow said the county paid for the
trip because the Board of Supervisors has voted to support the casino
project and he was advocating for the county’s interests.

not clear whose interests Svanda was representing at the hearing. Even
though he told the committee the project has "strong local support,"
the Madera City Council never has taken a vote to support or oppose the
casino project, and council members are divided on it.

Schmit, founder of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California,
said Svanda should not have told the committee that he was representing
the city.

"It’s a criminal offense to lie to Congress," she said. "That’s a real concern."

No disclosure made

says he did nothing wrong. He insists he went only as a private
businessman and not as a representative of the city — despite his
statements at the hearing.

Svanda said he was only following up
on Bigelow’s earlier testimony and that it wasn’t improper for the
North Fork tribe to pay for the trip. The tribe bought his air ticket
and reimbursed him for his hotel stay, Svanda said.

It’s unclear who asked Svanda to attend the hearing: Svanda said Bigelow asked him to go, but Bigelow said he didn’t.

Elaine Bethel-Fink, the tribe’s chairwoman, said questions about who paid for Svanda’s flight and hotel are "petty."

"My thinking is that anyone on my team should have [their travel costs] paid for to promote our projects," she said.

Bethel-Fink did not elaborate on what she meant by saying Svanda was on her team.

officials are required to fill out finance disclosure forms each year
that list any gifts worth more than $50. This also includes any
payments for travel costs outside of California, though not necessarily
hotel costs. Svanda did not disclose either the flight or hotel costs.

California Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces the
disclosure laws, said such violations could result in a fine of up to

If necessary, Svanda said, he will amend his 2008 finance
disclosure form to include the cost of the trip. He also said he will
abstain from any future votes on the casino "if there is a perceived
conflict of interest."

There wasn’t any indication of who had paid for Svanda’s trip until Station Casinos filed for bankruptcy in late July.

records reviewed by The Bee list hundreds of people, including Svanda,
who have received money from Station Casinos over the years. The list
does not say how much money they had received or why.

In an
initial interview, Svanda said he had no idea why he was on the list
and was "not that interested in knowing." It was not until after he was
asked whether it may have been for the Washington, D.C., trip that
Svanda acknowledged the tribe had purchased his airline ticket and had
reimbursed him for his one-night hotel stay.

It’s unclear why the
court records appear to indicate that Station Casinos made the
reimbursement when Svanda says the tribe reimbursed him.

Longtime involvement

North Fork tribe has long sought to build a 55-acre, $350 million
casino four miles north of Madera off Highway 99. Station Casinos also
owns another 250 acres of adjacent property where the tribe could
expand — potentially turning Madera into an entertainment mecca.

the property is about 35 miles from the North Fork Rancheria, the tribe
must first get approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs before it can
build an off-reservation casino. The bureau has approved only a small
number of off-reservation casinos in the past 20 years — and the
process is notoriously cumbersome.

In October 2007, the Senate
Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing to address complaints from
North Fork and other tribes on the slow pace of the process and on
several other issues. Bigelow says he doesn’t remember how he first
found out about the hearing but asked the committee if he could testify.

the hearing, Bigelow was joined by Jacquie Davis-Van Huss, then the
North Fork tribe’s chairwoman. He asked the committee to encourage
federal officials to release a key environmental study on the casino.
He also said that both the county and city of Madera "strongly support"
the project.

But support is not unanimous — Madera County
Supervisor Vern Moss and Madera City Council Member Robert Poythress
oppose the project. Madera Mayor Sam Armentrout says he has not taken a
stance. A ministerial association in Madera that includes 30 churches
and ministries also opposes the casino.

Bigelow said he was
invited to testify at the next hearing in May 2008 but couldn’t go
because of a previously scheduled conference. He would later describe
Svanda in a letter to the Indian Affairs Committee as "one of the
initial liaisons from the city to the project’s development team" and
as someone who has "been involved since [the casino project’s]
inception in 2003."

Svanda, who works as a financial adviser for
Edward Jones Investments, was first elected to the City Council in 2000
and served until 2004. After a two-year break, he successfully ran for
a second term.

‘False representation’?

During his
first term in office, Svanda said, he and a former mayor, Herman Perez,
started a business coalition to promote the casino project. The
coalition now includes more than a dozen businesspeople and has thrown
luncheons and other events to tout the benefits of the casino.

Svanda said the coalition does not receive any money from the tribe or Station Casinos.

the May 2008 hearing, Svanda was accompanied by the new North Fork
tribal chairwoman, Bethel-Fink, and the tribe’s treasurer. He
introduced them to the committee as "two important political leaders
from my area."

Svanda’s testimony focused mostly on why the
casino was a good idea and the need for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to
approve the project — noting that it had "very strong local support."

to the transcript, Svanda told the committee that he was speaking "on
behalf of the City Council of Madera and the Madera County Board of

In a recent interview, however, Svanda said he was
only representing the greater Madera business community and did not
represent the city "in any way, shape or form."

He said he told the committee he was a council member only because its members "wanted to know who I was."

Council Member Poythress said he felt Svanda made a "false representation" by speaking on behalf of the city.

haven’t been happy with people taking liberties to say the city of
Madera supports this project when there has been no official position
taken," he said.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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