June 21-27, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Schmooze Fest

By Peter Byrne

Bald-headed and jovial, Shawn Smyth reminds me of Kojak: the calculation in his light green eyes belies the friendly smile he flashed when I showed up at River Rock Casino on June 8. Smyth, 57, is the Geyserville casino's new CEO. Lund & Manasse, the Las Vegas public relations firm Smyth brought on board, was hosting an alcohol-free cocktail party so that casino marketers could get to know reporters and ad reps from local newspapers, such as the Cloverdale Reveille, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and yours truly. Radio and television types attended, too.

River Rock Casino is a partnership between the Houston-based company Nevada Gold & Casinos and the Dry Creek Rancheria tribe. The casino has a spate of intractable problems, which is probably why it has a new manager. For example, it has yet to obtain a liquor license. Furthermore, the surrounding community of vintners roundly loathe the ceaseless traffic flow caused by city gamblers hurrying to lose money at slots and card tables around the clock. And with the possibility of River Rock's liquor-deprived customers being stolen away by a proposed Indian casino in Rohnert Park--a locale considerably closer to the urban fount of gamblers--the tribe is trying to get federal permission to build a second casino on the outskirts of Petaluma. The name of the casino-building game in Northern California is to leap-frog ever closer to San Francisco and Oakland. Intra- and intertribal struggles over casino sites and profits have resulted in whole families breaking apart as well as suspected homicides.

Nonetheless, I schmoozed with Jack Taylor, a partner in Lund & Manasse. He was a bit taken aback when he saw the term "investigative reporter" on my business card, but he did his best to remain schmoozy. He told me that his firm used to be the in-house PR flacks for Station Casinos, which is backing the proposed Rohnert Park casino. He bragged that he invented "Paycheck Bonanza," a service where the casino cashes your paycheck for free. The trick is to get out of the casino with the rent and grocery money intact.

Taylor stopped smiling when I asked him why several Dry Creek tribal members recently filed a lawsuit against the tribe, the casino and Nevada Gold, complaining that they have not been provided with the permanent housing they were promised when they allowed their homes to be demolished for a parking lot.

Nonplussed, I wandered over to schmooze with Smyth. He asserted he did not know anything about the plan to add an outlet 40 miles south to Petaluma. He said, "Competition is the American way." He said the tribe has brought jobs and good will to the community. He complained that River Rock is the only casino in California without a liquor license. River Rock, he says, wants to provide a comprehensive "entertainment package."

Naturally, I asked him about the study just released by the state attorney general on how gambling impacts California. The study reports that Indian casinos in California grossed $5.78 billion in 2004; that only 9 percent of the Indians residing in the state benefit from casino profits; and that casinos create "modest" levels of jobs, but result in higher crime rates and higher rates of personal bankruptcies. There are nearly 1 million problem and pathological gamblers in California, and 80 percent of them are addicted to Indian casino gambling. Adults living within 50 miles of a casino have double the probability of becoming pathological gamblers.

The study further says that gambling addiction (including horse racing, card rooms and the state-run lottery) costs California $1 billion a year in crime, unpaid debts, mental illness, substance-abuse, unemployment and public assistance. Men are two or three times more susceptible to problem gambling than women, and "the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs has identified problem gambling as a serious community concern." Violent crimes are 10 percent higher in casino counties. Selling liquor in casinos, of course, exacerbates all of these problems.

Smyth frowned, saying he had glanced at the report.

I watched while ad reps (some of whom double as reporters) sucked up to Smyth, hoping to be blessed with River Rock advertising bucks. The schmoozing was in overload; I had to leave. On the way out, I told Smyth that I had put a dollar bill into one of his Mr. Cashman slot machines, playing two-cent pulls. When my original stake was down to 72 cents, I cashed out.

"You are probably the smartest guy in this place," Smyth laughed as he picked at a fried shrimp.

I do not know how smart I am--I lost 28 cents, after all--but I did have the good sense not to eat the shrimp.

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