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Car deal for the Choctaws?

By By David Evans / special to The Commercial Dispatch
May 10, 2002
David Evans teaches political science at Mississippi University for Women.
Nobody in this business has a problem with fair competition,'' said Carl Hogan. But if the $1.5 million deal to buy the Frontier Ford dealership in Carthage goes through, the Choctaw Tribe will have an unfair advantage. This is about a level playing field.''
The 50-year-old Hogan is one of 225 new-car dealers in the state licensed by the Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission. Since coming to Columbus in 1996, the dealership on Highway 45 North bearing his name has thrived and grown. In 2001, the dealership ranked 11th in new car registrations in Mississippi.
There are more than enough arcane issues in the Frontier Ford deal to keep a lawyer busy for a long time. I called Kevin Watson, a former resident of Columbus who practices law in Jackson. Kevin filled me in on the issues and sent me a copy of the application the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians filed with the Mississippi Motor Vehicles Commission.
The state of Mississippi has done a poor job on the legal aspects of this application,'' Watson said. This is a precedent-setting case that has national ramifications. No other Indian tribe in the country owns a new car dealership.''
The crux of the issue between the new car dealers and the Choctaw Tribe centers around the issue of sovereign immunity.'' Watson points out that because the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is regarded as a sovereign nation'' they are not subject to the laws of the state of Mississippi.
The rules enforcement provisions of the Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission Law are inapplicable to the tribe because the tribe has not waived its sovereign immunity,'' Watson points out. Thus, neither the commission nor the courts of the state of Mississippi have the ability to protect the consumers of Mississippi from unfair business practices.''
To Carl Hogan and the other new car dealers, it is a question of an unfair competitive advantage.
When Frontier Ford in Carthage officially changes hands and becomes wholly owned by the Choctaw Tribe, they won't be required to pay federal or state income taxes,'' Hogan said. And if they are granted 'in trust' land status by the federal government the property will then become part of the reservation and they will no longer be required to pay ad valorem taxes and can retain any sales taxes they may be collecting.''
You don't need an MBA from the Harvard Business School to understand that a setup like this is bound to raise some questions and eyebrows.
Watson has another complaint with the eight-member Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission, the body set up by the legislature to foster and keep alive vigorous and healthy competition'' while protecting consumers.
In the Jan. 9 executive session meeting, the commission voted 4-3 to deny the Choctaw Tribe the license to operate the Frontier Ford dealership,'' Watson points out. But in a second meeting on Feb. 20, two members who originally voted against the license didn't show up and the commission voted 3-2 to grant the license.''
You don't need an advanced degree in politics to figure out something happened between meeting No. 1 and meeting No. 2. Things got real interesting last week when Attorney General Mike Moore asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to grant an emergency order temporarily relieving Moore of the obligation to answer Watson's written questions to him and Phillip Martin, the chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, on what negotiations have taken place.
This has become a classic case of stonewalling on the part of Attorney General Mike Moore and the Choctaw Tribe,'' Watson said. We want some answers. We want to know what secret agreements have been made on sovereign immunity and the collection of taxes.''
Last week, Moore looked like he was playing hardball when he sent a certified-mail letter to W. Buster Davis, the chairman of the Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission, informing him that since the commission had ignored the advice of his office, the Attorney General's Office would not defend the members of the commission or authorize the use of state funds to pay for private attorneys if the Choctaw Tribe brought suit against them.
Meeting No. 3 is scheduled for April 17 with the Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission in Jackson with Watson representing 160 new car dealers who have joined the suit to revoke the Frontier Ford license. It's bound to be interesting.
Politics has never interested me,'' Hogan said as he looked at the rows of new cars in his lot. This has always been about a level playing field.''