The Byrne Report: Station Casinos and the Rohnert Park casino—what stinks

Is it racist to oppose the Rohnert Park casino-hotel? Or just sensible?


Trail of Cash

[The casino is] going to happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.
—Greg Sarris, chairman, Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria

The Graton Rancheria casino-hotel project lumbers through the bureaucratic maze constructed to make it appear that some consideration, however slight, is being given to weighing the environmental, sociological and economic costs to the community of building and operating the gigantic, aquifer-destroying, sewage-spewing, gridlocking, crime-generating, flood-causing, marriage-breaking, profit-extracting Tuscan-style ugliosity . . .

Stop, Byrne! Consider this: Isn’t it racist to object to the casino? It is being built by Indians, after all. And our community owes the Indians for the genocide that white settlers committed upon their ancestors.

Heck, even wine-grape pickers owe SSU professor Greg Sarris, who is part Indian. A lot of them are from Mexico. And the Mexican general Mariano Vallejo enslaved thousands of Pomos and Miwoks. OK, so let all of us North Bay non-Indians make reparations to our Native American neighbors. Let us require, as starters, that the North Bay Labor Council’s white-dominated construction unions accept only Indian apprentices. Let’s build houses (on stilts) for homeless Indians on the wetlands that Sarris wants to pave over for his off-reservation emporium. What the heck, let’s pass a $100 million bond to give every registered member of the Federated Gratons $100,000—that’s only $50 a year per parcel for five years.

Absurd? Why? Since cold cash speaks most convincingly to Sarris and his tribe, let’s bribe them to dump the casino. Then the Gratons can finance the non-evil businesses they claim to have wanted all along, having been driven, so they say, into fronting Station Casinos due to lack of indigenous capital.

Let’s be frank. Who is benefiting from this ill-intentioned project that, according to a report on Indian-owned casinos by the California Attorney General, is guaranteed to increase crime, misery, mental illness and loss of productive jobs?

Winner numero uno: Sarris. In 2003, Station Casinos funneled $1.5 million through the tribe to SSU to establish a chair in Native American studies. According to public records, the prof soaks up nearly $200 grand a year for a “reduced” teaching load which frees him up for “community work.”

In his job application, Sarris acknowledged the stinkiness of the deal. “I feel awkward,” he wrote, “because I am the chairman of the tribe that donated the money for the chair. Inability, it seems, mingles with a nagging notion of impropriety.” Listen to that nagging notion, Prof. Sarris, because it is incredibly improper. “Still I write,” he continued, “thinking that you—and my tribe—want me there, want me home.” Uh, not exactly.

Station Casinos’ cat’s paw, the tribe, has its own front group: Friends of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. The Station Casinos/tribe-funded “nonprofit” has spent at least $150,000 marketing the casino to the populace as long overdue reparations and a boon to the economy. The board is composed of local business people (who have an obvious eye toward eventually swimming in a lake of slot-machine silver) and representatives of building and construction trades (who hope to build the European-themed complex). Santa Rosa attorney and political fixer Dan Lanahan sits on the board. And then there is Dan Schurman, director of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, which took a $100,000 payment from Station Casinos and the tribe, and then shut up about environmental concerns.

But the biggest winner of all is Redwood Equities, composed of Clem Carinelli, James Ratto and Dennis Hunter who own North Bay Corp., aka the garbage company. In late 2005, they sold 279 acres of soggy land to Station Casinos’ development subsidiary for $100 million, booking a $89.6 million profit. Carinelli, Ratto and Hunter are the three biggest players in local real estate previously “owned” by Indians. To state the painfully obvious, Sarris and a few wealthy white guys are floating in long green while ordinary members of the Graton tribe have yet to benefit from Sarris’ “self-determination” charade.

History shows that rank-and-file members of casino-owning tribes (such as the Dry Creek tribe in Healdsburg) most often get the short end. Casino jobs are seldom staffed by Indians, and self-selecting tribal leaderships typically prune membership roles to inflate their own dividend for sitting around doing nothing while Las Vegas corporations hide behind their heritage. In fact, even if you can prove that your ancestry qualifies you for membership in the Graton tribe, you are flat out of luck because Sarris—who has bought a $1.5 million residence in Penngrove—put a moratorium on membership applications.

It is not racist for liberal and progressive people to oppose casinos built by poverty-pimping. Nor is the ending of this story written in stone.