By Dan Morain, Senior editor
Published: Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1E

Attorney General Jerry Brown casts himself as a no-nonsense prosecutor. But when it comes to asserting state oversight of casinos owned by Indian tribes, he’s been less than aggressive.

Tribes that own the state’s most lucrative casinos are betting early that Brown will be the next governor. Based on his actions as attorney general, those casino owners will have a friend in the most important corner office in California.

In 2008, for example, Brown sided with the tribes and against the state Gambling Control Commission, which wanted to impose new requirements on the tribe’s casino operations, similar to how Nevada casinos are regulated.

Since then, he has collected $692,000 from tribes into various campaign and charitable accounts. Brown says there is no connection. But his view is that the state has a limited role overseeing tribe-owned casinos – and that ought to give voters some pause, regardless of their views on gambling.

“It is the tribes that have the primary jurisdiction,” he told me, adding that the California Department of Justice does have a role that includes conducting background checks of key employees.

Billions of dollars flow through tribal casinos each year. Exactly how much is not known. Tribes don’t need to disclose their take. Federal and state governments have ceded almost all oversight to the casinos’ owners.

Still, governors can use their power to negotiate agreements that benefit casino patrons and communities around these casinos. If the past is any predictor, Brown’s agenda as governor won’t include taking tough stands against casino-owning tribes.

Consider the events of September 2008.

The state Gambling Control Commission sought to assert its authority by developing what it called minimum internal control standards to govern tribe-owned casino operations.

Its name notwithstanding, the gambling commission has had little luck controlling the tribes’ gambling operations.

For a brief time, however, the state had a grander vision of its role.

The commission sought to impose an array of requirements governing audits, surveillance, money counting and other details.

Representatives of 60 tribes, seeing no reason to permit state involvement, turned thumbs-down when the gambling commission made its proposal back in 2008.

Their position came as no surprise. But Brown’s stand did raise eyebrows. He sided with the tribes, and against the state gambling commission.

“The tribes were ready to claim they violated the compact and were threatening litigation,” Brown said. “This is not a blunderbuss, take-it-or-leave it. You’ve got to work together. This is a collaborative role.”

The recession has slowed the expansion of gambling. But once the economy improves, the industry will grow. Whoever wins in November will negotiate any new deals permitting tribes to expand their operations, hold sway over Internet gambling and help decide whether to allow new casinos on land that is not now part of reservations.

The Brown family and gambling have a rich history. One of Brown’s grandfathers owned card rooms in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and employed Jerry’s father, Pat Brown, who preceded Brown as governor.

The nature of gambling has changed dramatically since those days. A voter-approved ballot measure in 2000 ended any debate about the legality of Indian-owned casinos. Since then, Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger have presided over the largest expansion of gambling in U.S. history.

There’s no turning back now. Casinos are part of the fabric of California. Tribes have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on California politics since 1998, making them integral to state campaigns.

They could be particularly important to the coming election.

Republican Meg Whitman, the political neophyte who once ran eBay, has dumped $39 million of her own wealth into her run for governor. Her primary opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, another wealthy former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has chipped in $19 million.

Brown must run as he always has, soliciting money from his supporters. To this end, he gathered 30 tribal leaders and their consultants together early in December at the Somerset, a chic eatery in Oakland’s boutique-y Rockridge section.

They dined on entrees of salmon, roasted chicken and flatiron steak, and an apple crisp that was to die for. Brown raised $205,000 in November and December from the tribes.

Since Brown’s election as attorney general in 2006, tribes that own casinos have donated $715,000 to Brown’s coffers for attorney general and governor, and to charities that operate charter schools he established in Oakland.

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