Latest Ramos Legislative Success Raises Further Ethical & Legal Questions

For at least the third time, official action engaged in by Assembly James Ramos in his role as a legislator has raised moral and legal questions that have yet to be resolved.
Those questions are an outgrowth of his ability and apparent willingness to use his legislative authority to enhance his already considerable financial advantage as a prominent member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which is now officially known as the Yuhaaviatam Nation.
This week, legislation introduced by Ramos, Assembly Bill 341, was passed by an overwhelming margin of the California Legislature with bipartisan support and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom.
Assembly Bill 341 reinstates provisions sponsored by the cardroom industry in the 1997 Gambling Control Act, which prohibited California from issuing new cardroom licenses. That moratorium was periodically extended by the legislature for 25 years before it expired on January 1, 2023 due to timing constraints.
Under AB 341, no new cardrooms can open before January 1, 2043, but existing cardrooms with fewer than 20 gambling tables can add up to 10 new tables over the next 20 years. Cardrooms operating 20 tables or more at present are allowed to continue to operate, adding up to two tables in the first year after the law takes effect, and up to two more tables every four years thereafter.
Assemblyman Ramos is a member of the Yuhaaviatam Nation, which while previously known as the San Manuel Tribe of Mission Indians first established a high stakes Indian Bingo Parlor in the 1980s, which was transformed in the 1990s into what is now a highly lucrative casino on the tribe’s reservation near the City of Highland. This was achieved as a consequence of federal law which allows Native American tribes to operate gaming establishments upon meeting certain conditions. More recently, the Yuhaaviatam Nation has established next to the casino a 432-room resort hotel, which has made the casino operation even more financially successful. The hotel, at 17 floors, is the tallest building in San Bernardino County.
Assemblyman Ramos was, formerly, the San Manuel tribal chairman and as such had tremendous sway over the distribution of the revenue the tribe realizes from the operation of the casino. Some members of the tribe make more money than other members of the tribe. Ramos is among the highest remunerated Yuhaaviatam Nation members, and is reportedly paid roughly $18,000 per day taken from the tribe’s gambling and resort revenues. He parlayed his wealth into a successful run for the San Bernardino Community College Board in 2005, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in 2012 and, in 2018, the California Assembly.Whatever the merits of Assembly Bill 342, some people believe that Assemblyman Ramos’s authorship and sponsorship of that particular piece of legislation is unseemly, given that it locks in an existing advantage that the San Manuel Tribe has vis-à-vis its casino and that Assemblyman Ramos draws a considerable amount of money from the casino’s operations.
Some have gone so far as to allege that Assemblyman Ramos’s sponsorship of Assembly Bill 342 is a violation of both the California Fair Political Practices rules and California Government Code Section 87100.
According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, “Under the California Political Reform Act, a public official has a disqualifying conflict of interest in a governmental decision if it is foreseeable that the decision will have a financial impact on his or her personal finances or other financial interests. In such cases, there is a risk of biased decision-making that could sacrifice the public’s interest in favor of the official’s private financial interests. To avoid actual bias or the appearance of possible improprieties, the public official is prohibited from participating in the decision.”
Government Codes Section 87100 states, “A public official at any level of state or local government shall not make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use the public official’s official position to influence a governmental decision in which the official knows or has reason to know the official has a financial interest.”
The authoring, introducing and voting to approve Assembly Bill 342 has not been the only example of Assemblyman Ramos authoring legislation or engaging in official action as a legislator that provided, or was aimed at providing, the San Manuel Tribe/Yuhaaviatam Nation a benefit that was specialized in nature, that is, an advantage that benefited the tribe specifically along with a relative handful of other entities rather than the general public.
Last month Assemblyman Ramos outmaneuvered a fellow Democrat, Eloise Gómez Reyes, with regard to competing assembly bills relating to warehouses. Assemblywoman Reyes had authored Assembly Bill 1000, which called for restricting warehouses, if they are 100,000 square feet or larger, from being built within 1,000 feet of homes, hotels, schools, churches, medical facilities or any other places where people live, frequent or congregate for any length of time. Assemblyman Ramos wrote and sponsored Assembly Bill 2840, which set the threshold for the size of warehouses to be regulated at 400,000 square feet and restricted them from being built any closer than 300 feet from homes, hotels, schools, churches, medical facilities and the like. Assemblyman Ramos is a member of the Assembly Local Government Committee, which in April took up dual consideration of AB 1000 and the less restrictive AB 1748. Ultimately, the Assembly Local Government Committee slammed the door shut on AB 1000 and allowed AB 1748 to progress to consideration by the full Assembly, where it now appears to be headed for passage.
The San Manuel Tribe owns warehouses and property slated for uses as warehouses in the area around Highland and San Bernardino, including ones that are proximate to homes and businesses closer than the 1,000-foot distance specified in Assemblywoman Gómez Reyes’ Assembly Bill 1000. One of those warehouses encompasses 1.1 million square feet.
Additionally, the California Department of Water Resources and the United States Forest Service are mulling a proposal by the San Manuel Indian Tribe to trade 1,533.92 acres at various altitudes ranging from approximately 5,200 feet to 7,000 feet in the San Bernardino Mountains owned by the tribe to the United States Forest Service for two parcels of federal land consisting of 1,475.90 acres located near the Arrowhead Springs Hotel at the approximate 2,000 foot elevation in the San Bernardino Mountain foothills. If that land trade goes through, it will provide the San Manuel Tribe with land across which and under which a substantial amount of water that originates in the San Bernardino Mountains flows into the Bunker Hill Basin water table, which supplies water to the East Valley Water District, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District and the San Bernardino Municipal Water Department and more than 600,000 downstream users in the Santa Ana River watershed. By taking control of the land in question, the tribe, which is considered a sovereign nation that is not subject to overriding U.S. law, California law and California water law, could dam or otherwise divert water with a future value running into the hundreds of millions of dollars and use it for its own purposes, while simultaneously denying those downstream users in the watershed access to that water.
On January 24, 2023, Assemblyman Ramos sent a letter in his capacity as a member of the California Assembly on his Assembly office stationary to the U.S. Forest Service in support of the proposed land swap.
There are people, including Assemblyman Ramos’s constituents, who are troubled by what they say is a pattern of the assemblyman authoring, introducing or sponsoring legislation and otherwise taking action in his capacity as a state legislator which benefits himself, either directly or indirectly, as a member of the San Manuel Indian Tribe.
Ramos was elected to the Assembly in 2018. While the structure of California’s term limits for state legislators previously limited an individual to three two-year terms or six years in the Assembly and two four-year terms or eight years in the State Senate, changes put in place more than a decade ago now impose a 12-year total limit on state legislators, such that an officeholder can serve all twelve years in the Assembly, all twelve years in the State Senate or a combination of four or eight years in one body and four or eight years in the other house. Ramos thus has the option of remaining in the Assembly through 2030 if he so chooses and his constituents cooperate by reelecting him. It appears that may be his goal, since in doing so, he has an outside chance at acceding to the ultimate position in the California Legislature, that of speaker of the Assembly. He is a Democrat in the Democrat-dominated atmosphere of Sacramento. At present, as the chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee and a member of the powerful Assembly Local Government Committee, he is the fifth-ranking member of California’s lower legislative house. There are four members of the Assembly, Democrats all, who outrank him: Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Speaker Pro Tem Christopher Ward, Assistant Speaker Pro Tem Stephanie Nguyen and Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes.
Gómez Reyes represents no obstacle to him in his potential climb into the speaker’s position, as she is to leave the Assembly at the end of her current term, since she will be vying for the State Senate in 2024.
Likewise, Nguyen is not likely to stand in Ramos’s way. She is certainly an up-and-comer in the Democratic Party and the Assembly. She was first elected to the Assembly in 2022 and therefore will likely be around for a while. Her placement into the assistant speaker pro tem position, however, is a function of her close association with Rendon rather than across-the-board strength among the state’s Democratic Party.
The two true challenges to Ramos’s prospects for seizing the brass ring of the speakership consist of Rendon and Ward. Rendon came into the Assembly two years prior to Ramos, in 2016, which means he can remain in the Assembly, if he chooses, through 2028. If he does, he has the inside track on remaining the speaker until 2028, and that would pretty much prevent Ramos from getting to that post until, at best, his last two years in office. He then would need to climb over Ward, who was first elected to the Assembly in 2020 and would be, by at least some calculations, the heir apparent after having served as speaker pro tem for so long.
There is a possibility, however, that Rendon will leave the Assembly in 2024 to make a run for the State Senate, just as Ward might do the same. If both Rendon and Ward depart the Assembly next year, that would set Ramos up as the odds-on favorite to become speaker. If Rendon leaves the Assembly and Ward remains, Ramos might have to duke it out with Ward to take ultimate control of the Democratic Party in the legislature. With his wealth and that of his tribal allies, however, Ramos has the reach to endow tens or dozens of other Democrats in the Assembly with campaign donations, which might leave them more inclined to support him rather than Ward as speaker.
Ramos’s actual power and prospect toward achieving more power makes it highly unlikely that anyone – other politicians or prosecutors in the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office or the California Attorney General’s Office – will challenge him over his carrying legislation or voting on legislation that has the effect of benefiting his tribe or himself personally.
In the aftermath of the January 24, 2023 letter Ramos sent to the U.S. Forest Service in support of the proposed land swap between the Yuhaaviatam Nation and the Forest Service, some local citizens on February 28 lodged a complaint pertaining to Ramos with the Special Committee on Legislative Ethics and its chief counsel, Adam Silver. That complaint alleged the January 24 letter represented violations of California Government Code Sections 87100 and 87103, specifically that he had used his position as a California Assemblyman to support the land exchange while he is a member of the Yuhaaviatam of San Manuel Nation, which will profit by the trade.
So far, at least, there has been no action taken as a result of that complaint.
Assemblyman Ramos’s substantial personal wealth, the wealth of other members of the tribe, the influence of the tribe with public officials, particularly within the context of San Bernardino County, and Ramos’s status as a member of the California Legislature leave those who have objections to the way in which he is using the power in his possession to his advantage reluctant to confront him publicly. Since the passage of Assembly Bill 342, the Sentinel has spoken with four individuals of substance in the San Bernardino County establishment, including former elected officials and a senior governmental official, all of whom expressed disapproval of way in which Ramos was using his legislative reach to enrich himself and his fellow tribe members. One of those called what Ramos is doing “blatantly illegal.” Another agreed but said that San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson lacked the character or the fortitude to make an issue of it. One of the other two opined that what the assemblyman is doing is “unethical as hell.”
None of the four, however, was willing to speak on the record.
The Sentinel sought from Ramos and his official spokeswoman, Maria Lopez, input on the controversy his sponsorship of Assembly Bill 342 and the benefit it confers on the Yuhaaviatam Nation has stirred up. The Sentinel received no response by press time.
A defense of Ramos’s sponsorship of Assembly Bill 341 came from an unlikely source: his Republican opponent in the 2018 Assembly race, Henry Nickel, who was then a San Bernardino City Councilman.
Nickel noted that Ramos and the rest of the California legislature are working within the context of the “regulatory framework over gambling in general. The reality is that casino gambling is more manageable than on-line gambling. On-line gambling is a big issue,” he said, noting that the casino industry is being threatened by the opportunity for people to place bets over the internet.
Nickel said Indian tribes had been granted a national gambling franchise to make up for centuries of oppression.
“I believe we have a responsibility to make good on the promises we made to the tribal community,” Nickel stated.
The former councilman said members of Congress and state legislators often involve themselves in drafting and voting upon legislation that has an impact on and relevancy to the industries or portions of the business sector in which they were involved before they were legislators.
“It is not unusual for lawmakers to call upon the expertise they had in their walk of life before they became elected officials while they are involved in creating laws or regulations in their roles as legislators,” Nickel said. “I don’t think that as a member of the tribe James should be barred from weighing in on what sort of regulation is appropriate for the gaming industry. I understand there might be certain benefits to the tribe as an existing casino operator when the state gets down to regulating gambling and on-line gambling.
“I do not have a problem with him supporting legislation that might prove to be beneficial to himself and the tribe of which he is a part, as long as that legislation passes muster with the remainder of the Assembly and the State Senate,” Nickel continued. “The real question is whether the bill makes for a good law and good public policy or not. I have a lot of respect for James. He was duly elected, and he has the right and obligation to introduce legislation that he feels is relevant and important and of benefit to the community. If the voters don’t like the legislation he is responsible for, they can always get rid of him at the ballot box.”
Of note is that the Yuhaaviatam are considered, under federal law, to be a sovereign nation, independent of both the United States and the State of California. As such, there is an outstanding legal question as to whether Ramos, as a member of the Yuhaaviatam Nation, is subject to California law. That, however, prompts a question as to whether, if Ramos is a citizen of a nation other than the United States and an entity other California, he is eligible to serve in the California Legislature. Since he has been seated in the Assembly and has been voting in that capacity for more than four years, such an inquiry is moot. The reality, it appears, is Ramos is a political juggernaut who is, at least at this point, able to cut his own path in any direction he chooses.

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