Cashed Out

Texas' only casino hit by corruption charges

On a busy Saturday night, nearly 2,000 players can be found working the glittering banks of slots and crowding the poker tables at the Kickapoo Indian tribe's huge new casino, the only legal house of gambling in Texas. Next month, the tribe will host the Tejano Music Awards ceremonies at the dome attached to the casino. Stars including Jimmy Gonzalez Y Mazz and Shelly Lares are expected to be joined by thousands of Tejano fans.

But the man whose grand ambition and political muscle built the gaming complex won't be around to share the fun. Instead, former tribal manager Isidro Garza Jr. will be working on his defense to a massive federal indictment.

Garza, 54, a non-Indian, was ousted along with members of the Kickapoo tribal council and chairman in a peaceful tribal uprising in October 2002. The overthrow came after unhappy Kickapoo accused their leaders of being dictatorial and corrupt. Garza is one of seven people, all once close to the tribe, now accused in a 25-count indictment of offenses ranging from stealing hundreds of thousands from the tribe to violating the civil rights of individual Kickapoo.

The indictment also claims Garza illegally used casino money to make large political contributions to a range of office-seekers, including a state judge in Eagle Pass who is now feeling the heat.

"These defendants were trusted by the tribe to manage their money and use it for the good of the Kickapoos. Sadly, they betrayed that trust," said U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in announcing the indictment.

If convicted on all counts and sentenced to the max, Garza, a former Eagle Pass city manager, technically faces more than a century behind bars. But his troubles just begin there.

Also indicted were his wife, Martha, his eldest son, Isidro Javier Garza, and another son, Timoteo, whose improbable tenure as state representative ended in January and was marked by his father's involvement. Among the counts the Garza family members face are tax evasion, embezzlement and conspiracy. Completing the lineup of defendants are former tribal lawyer Joe Ruiz of Eagle Pass, former casino manager Lee Martin and former tribal chairman Raul Garza Sr., the only Kickapoo charged. (He is not related to the other Garzas.) All seven have pleaded not guilty. A trial is likely to come this summer.

Beyond offering statements affirming his faith in God, Isidro Garza has declined to comment. His attorney, famed defense lawyer Richard "Racehorse" Haynes of Houston, has hinted at a possible defense. "Isidro was responsible to the chairman and the tribal council. The Kickapoo are a sovereign nation. If it was OK with the chairman and the council, where's the crime?" Haynes asked.

Only lawyer Ruiz, who is charged with conspiracy, theft and money laundering, has spoken out aggressively. "Joe Ruiz will match and compare his record of service and dedication to the Kickapoo people against the federal government's record for fairness, compassion and service to indigenous people any day, anywhere," he said.

The indictments, returned in December and January in San Antonio, were the fruit of a two-year multi-agency federal investigation of financial activities at the small reservation outside Eagle Pass.

The 500-member tribe also has a 17,000-acre reservation about 130 miles inside Mexico. Called "El Nacimiento," or the birthplace, the Mexican remote site became the Kickapoo's base after they fled Texas ahead of incoming Anglos in the middle of the 19th century. For a century the Kickapoo all but disappeared, but when a fierce drought hit Mexico in the 1950s, they began returning to the United States as migrant farm workers, living part of the year in abject poverty beneath the international bridge in Eagle Pass.

Not until 1983 did the Kickapoo receive federal tribal recognition in the United States. Three years later, using donated funds, they acquired a bleak, 125-acre reservation on the Rio Grande, just south of Eagle Pass.

In 1996, the tribe opened the Lucky Eagle Casino and members finally began to break the migrant cycle, but the casino also set off a long period of internal conflict from which Isidro and Raul Garza emerged unchallenged.

That ended abruptly in October 2002, when Maverick County deputy sheriffs forcibly removed Isidro from the casino offices after the tribe staged a peaceful "vote of conscience" and toppled their leaders.

The new casino, which opened last fall several years behind schedule, has more than 1,000 game machines and is expected to gross in excess of $30 million annually. The Kickapoo are also pursuing a license upgrade to Class Three gambling, which would include everything available in Las Vegas.

And much of the credit for the casino goes to Isidro, whose original grandiose development plan included hotels, a golf course and a jet landing strip for high rollers.

As tribal manager, Isidro Garza earned 10 percent of the casino net, which came to roughly $500,000 a year. According to federal prosecutors, he also helped himself to quite a bit more and didn't declare it as income. The indictment lists roughly $1 million in funds allegedly misappropriated by the various defendants.

Before his fall from power, Isidro cut a wide swath in a corner of South Texas, earning a reputation as a hardball political player and a big spender known for his signature $100 tips and handouts. In a free-spending 2002 campaign paid for by casino money and paternal loans, Isidro's youthful second son, Timoteo, was elected to the House despite a shy personality, paper-thin résumé and no experience in public office.

But Timoteo, 30, was defeated last spring in a rematch in the Democratic primary by former Representative Tracy King of Batesville. Among other things, Timoteo is accused of avoiding taxes on large sums routed through his father's consulting firm.

For the Kickapoo, who once feared to even publicly criticize Isidro and who blame him for corrupting their longtime leader Raul Garza, the indictments were sweet vindication. "It's been too many years. It's been a long time coming. I think justice is being served finally," said Juan Gonzalez Jr., one of those who led the uprising. "If there was any doubt as to what we were saying before, this is proof. We always thought things were not being run right, that funds were being misappropriated at the casino."

Few Kickapoo have expressed any sympathy for Raul Garza Sr., 63, who lost the loyalty of all but a few as he drew closer and closer to Isidro.

"I feel saddened that it had to come to this with Raul, to a man of his stature as a religious leader, but he knew what he was doing. He let these things happen against his own people. It's really sad, but that's the reality," Gonzalez said.

In several court appearances, a bewildered Raul Garza has professed his confusion and innocence. "I am a Kickapoo. I have never been to school. I don't know the laws. I don't understand English," he began telling U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green in December. The judge quickly told him to consult his lawyer. Because he is considered a flight risk by prosecutors, as of Monday Raul Garza remained in jail, the only defendant not released on bond.

Without giving names, the indictment mentions various local and state-level officials who allegedly received campaign contributions and political payments from a slush fund kept by Isidro. They are likely to be identified when the case goes to trial. One recipient of Isidro Garza's largess has already felt the heat.

In articles in the San Antonio Express-News, District Judge Amado Abascal of Eagle Pass was identified as being the state judge mentioned in the indictment who accepted $15,000 in casino cash. The money was reported by Abascal as being $1,000 donations from 15 people, all linked to the casino, but some listed as giving him the money either declined to confirm it came from them or said they knew nothing about it.

It is illegal in Texas for a candidate to accept more than $100 in cash from any person in each election cycle, and because of the small size of his judicial district, Abascal is forbidden to accept more than $1,000 from any individual in each election.

The judge has declined to comment.

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