Paternalism or protection?: Federal review of tribal economic decisions in indian gaming (transcript of panel discussion at Harvard law school)

In a recent Senate hearing, Senator John McCain and Professor Washburn clashed about the federal role in tribal economic decisions involving Indian gaming. Professor Washburn, who was struck by decades of incompetent federal stewardship of tribal trust funds demonstrated so painfully in the Cobell litigation, questioned the wisdom of the existing gaming regulatory structure in which federal officials at the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) exercise oversight of tribal economic decisions involving tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Senator McCain sharply disagreed. Following his investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, McCain was even more certain that tribes needed federal protection from outsiders like Abramoff. McCain argued that the need for such protection justified close federal oversight of tribal economic decisions. The dilemma inherent in this exchange between Senator McCain and Professor Washburn will haunt the relationship between the United States and Indian tribes in the post-Cobell (and post-Abramoff) era. The purpose of this panel discussion at Harvard Law School was to consider these issues in the context of the work of the NIGC. The NIGC reviews Indian gaming management contracts under strict statutory standards. It reviews other contracts for violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act's "sole proprietary interest" standard. In an era of tribal self-determination and self-governance, what is the justification for NIGC review of tribal economic decisions? Does the NIGC exercise a "trust responsibility" toward Indian tribes? What are the practical ramifications of having federal public servants reviewing tribal economic decisions worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars? Are the costs of such review justified by the benefits? Is federal oversight useful for tribal transactions in which tribes have obtained the advice of Wall Street investment banks and legal counsel at sophisticated law firms? Are federal public servants competent to review the increasingly complex financial arrangements created in such transactions? Is the NIGC accountable for its decisions? What remedy ought to be available to tribes if the NIGC makes an error? If such review is necessary to protect tribes, on what basis should federal public servants disapprove such agreements?
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