An epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse thrives on the nation's Indian reservations, but Eric M. Tieger has an idea for attacking the problem. His formula:
Under the B, 12. Under the I, 64. Under the N . . . .
Tieger, secretary-treasurer of a Seattle-based alcohol-abuse program called the LifeCycle Foundation, is planning to beam a high-stakes bingo game to the world next May from the tiny Sauk-Suiattle Indian reservation in Washington state.
The cards would be expensive -- $1,000 each -- but the single prize of $50 million would be the biggest ever in the United States for a single game of chance. And Tieger says there would be boodles of bucks left over to finance drug and alcohol recovery programs for non-Indians as well as Indians.
"It will be the largest gambling game in the world," Tieger said. "We think people will support this."
The idea comes as a bit of a surprise to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Federal Communications Commission, where officials are skeptical of Tieger's plan.
"This is something new to us," said BIA spokesman Carl Shaw. FCC spokesman Harvey Speck said that federal communications law bans lotteries from the airwaves except under certain circumstances. "I can't see any broadcast station doing this willy-nilly without checking with us," Speck said.
Tieger, the Sauk-Suiattle tribe and several other groups involved in the proposal say they are counting on court rulings that exempt Indian reservations from most state gambling regulations. States cannot set a limit on prizes for reservation bingo, as they can for games run by organizations off the reservation.
As a result, bingo parlors have sprung up on more than half of the nation's 167 Indian reservations, providing millions of dollars in revenue for tribes.
The Sauk-Suiattle tribe has no bingo parlor, but it does have a reservation: About 23 acres near Darrington, in northwest Washington state. According to Tieger, the megabucks bingo game would be perfectly legal if telecast from tribal land. According to Speck, the FCC is not so certain.
"The rule is that it's prohibited to broadcast lotteries or advertising of lotteries," he said. The law exempts lotteries sponsored by state governments, but not those backed by tribal governments.
"Indians have raised this question time and time again," seeking to advertise their bingo parlors on television, Speck said. The FCC has routinely turned thumbs down.
Speck said, however, that the Tieger game might be allowed under FCC rules if the transmission did not involve an FCC-licensed broadcast station, or if the promoters of the game did not benefit from it. If the LifeCycle Foundation or some other promoter is willing to foot the bill and give all the proceeds to the Sauk-Suiattle tribe, for example, "that might be permissible," he said.
A "fact sheet" distributed by Tieger states that the foundation would be a beneficiary, receiving from $8 million to $10 million if the bingo game hauls in the $100 million he estimates.
Two other Seattle-area groups -- Native American Alcohol Awareness and the Associated Alano Clubs of Pierce County, a group of private clubs for recovering alcoholics -- would get $11 million apiece, and "participating tribes" would get $14 million. An additional $6 million would go to a "promotion and management firm," which is not identified.
Laurence Joseph, chairman of the Sauk-Suiattle tribal council, confirmed that his tribe has agreed to sponsor the bingo telecast and has contracted with Tieger to develop the proposal. He said the tribe expects to get "enough to sustain our administrative costs."
Shaw said the BIA was unaware of the contract between Tieger and the Sauk-Suiattle tribe. But if the tribe intends to run a bingo operation, he said, it has to get BIA approval.
"We have to do a background check on the people involved," Shaw said.
Tieger said the telecast arrangements are "under negotiation," but he said he is confident that the group will find a medium for its message. The game, preceded by what promoters are billing as a celebrity-studded show, is scheduled for May 13.
"This is a private-sector initiative solving a public-sector problem," he said. "We can do it without anybody's help. We just buy some satellite time and away we go." If necessary, he said, the telecast would be done on closed-circuit television from Indian reservation to Indian reservation.
"We're not violating any wire gambling laws. It's just a charitable bingo game," Tieger said. "Jerry Lewis has his disease and I've got mine."