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Indian tribe drops fight against donation disclosure

July 14, 2007 Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO -- A wealthy Indian tribe has agreed to publicly report donations to politicians, dropping its claim that it's exempt from state campaign disclosure laws.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Fair Political Practices Commission ends a lawsuit that could have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The outcome of this case shows that everyone who engages in the political process in California must adhere to the requirements of the Political Reform Act," said FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson.

The California Supreme Court in December ruled against Agua Caliente. Some feared the case would compromise the claims of tribes nationwide that they have the power to govern themselves and are exempt from many state laws.

"Tribes did not want this case brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, because it could result in a wholesale attack on tribal sovereignty," said Howard Dickstein, an attorney who represents several California tribes that voluntarily disclose donations to politicians. "There's a lesson to be learned about picking your fights."

Agua Caliente owns two casinos in Palm Springs. The tribe has spent $20 million on political campaigns since 2002. It was sued by the commission in 2002 for failing to meet deadlines in the Political Reform Act for disclosing political donations and for lobbying activity from 1998 to 2002.

"We had to balance considerations for this tribe and other tribes as well," said tribal spokeswoman Nancy Conrad. "We decided this is not the day to take this fight forward."

Under the settlement, reached June 29, Agua Caliente agreed not to appeal the California Supreme Court decision and to waive its sovereign immunity regarding enforcement of state campaign disclosure laws.

The tribe also agreed to pay $200,000 to the state general fund.

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