A roulette wheel in the Casino of the Wind at Mohegan Sun Courtesy of Mohegan Sun
Kevin Brown, left, and Rodney Butler, the tribal leaders, talk to reporters earlier this year. ctmirror.org

A Trump administration official says the election of President Trump and arrival of new leaders at the Department of the Interior have not changed advice given a year ago in a technical assistance letter: A commercial casino operated by Connecticut’s two federally recognized tribes would not jeopardize their revenue-sharing deal with the state.

“We confirm that the current Administration supports the views expressed in the technical assistance letter,” said James E. Cason, the acting deputy secretary of the Interior, a department that includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The letter was sought by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations to answer concerns that permitting them to develop a commercial casino would jeopardize more than $260 million in revenue-sharing to the state.

The letter was faxed Friday night to Kevin Brown, the chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Nation and released Monday by MMCT, a joint venture of the tribes that is seeking a law allowing them to open a casino off I-91 in East Windsor to compete with an MGM gambling resort under construction in Springfield.

One major obstacle to passage of the authorization bill is a concern raised by Attorney General George Jepsen that a commercial casino, even one operated by the tribes, could invalidate a deal in which the tribes were granted exclusive rights to casino gambling in Connecticut in return for a 25 percent share of gross slots revenues.

The tribes separately have operated two of the world’s largest casinos, Foxwoods Resorts and Mohegan Sun, on tribal lands in eastern Connecticut for more than two decades.

The Cason letter comes with a disclaimer that the department does not provide “preliminary decisions or advisory opinions,” nor is it legally binding. But it basically says that history in on the tribes’ side when they say that the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Department of the Interior have respected existing compacts between the states and tribes.

“In practice, the Department has not disturbed long-standing compacts when reviewing amendments to the underlying agreements,” Cason wrote. “Here, the Tribes and the State have long-relied upon the Compacts that have facilitated a significant source of revenue for the Tribes and the State. The Department does not anticipate disturbing these underlying agreements.”

The tribes’ request for an updated technical assistance letter itself was the subject of lobbying. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote a letter last week urging the Department of the Interior to disavow the older technical assistance letter. McCain’s letter was delivered to Connecticut by lobbyists for MGM.

MGM said the letter changes nothing.

“This is not news – it’s a hoax,” said Uri Clinton, a senior vice president and legal counsel at MGM Resorts International.  “As the letter itself states, this is not preliminary approval or an advisory opinion. It’s just another attempt by the tribes to pull the wool over people’s eyes, which means the red flags raised by Attorney General George Jepsen remain as red as ever.  In addition, the letter specifically confirms that any amendments to the compact would be subject to litigation under the Administrative Procedures Act – a concern already raised by the attorney general.”

The tribes face another concern raised by Jepsen: A bill giving them rights to the state’s first commercial casino without competition could be challenged in court. They also face opposition from groups unhappy with the prospect of any expansion of casino gambling.

But with three weeks left in the 2017 session of the General Assembly, the tribes were quick to celebrate.

“Receiving this confirmation from the BIA provides a huge boost for our project,” said Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. “The choice now is simple. We can do nothing, and lose thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue.  Or we can compete, and do right by the hard-working families in our state.”

“We’ve acted in good faith for the last two years,” said Brown, his counterpart with the Mohegans. “We’ve done the hard work of selecting a site, and are proud to have a staunch ally in the town of East Windsor. With this important confirmation in hand, we urge everyone in the legislature to stand with us as we stand up and fight for Connecticut jobs.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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