A rendering of the proposed casino in East Windsor. MMCT
A rendering of the proposed casino in East Windsor. MMCT

Washington – The Interior Department’s failure to act on provisions that would allow the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to open a new casino in East Windsor came after a vigorous lobbying campaign by competitor MGM Resorts International and a change in Indian gaming policy in the Trump administration.

The state sought Interior Department approval of amendments that said the new casino would not violate an exclusivity clause in the years-old compact the tribes have with Connecticut that allowed them to open the Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. Under the compact the tribes agreed to share 25 percent of their slot revenue with the state, but that arrangement would only hold if no new casinos were opened in Connecticut.

The Connecticut law authorizing the new casino requires federal approval of the compact amendments before the casino can go forward.

With the Interior Department declining to weigh in on the amendments, Andrew Doba, spokesman for the tribal joint venture that would build the casino, called MMCT Venture, said the Pequots and the Mohegans are “looking at all of their options.”

Among those options may be a lawsuit against the Interior Department.

The Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on an issue that is complicated and unprecedented.

The East Windsor casino would be a first – the only full casino run by an Indian tribe off tribal land or on land held by the federal government in trust for a tribe.

During an Oct. 26 meeting with tribal representatives, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asked the Connecticut tribes to submit information on why his agency would have to weigh in on a commercial casino – that is one that is not built on tribal land nor on land taken by the federal government in trust and therefore subject to the Indian Gaming Regulation Act.

The tribes sought the meeting with Zinke after receiving a Sept. 15 letter from Michael Black, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that said his agency had completed a review of their amendments and that “action on the amendments is premature and likely unnecessary.”

MGM has fought hard to block the East Windsor casino, which would compete with an MGM casino under development in Springfield, Mass. Black’s letter was copied to two members of Congress from Nevada, home of MGM and other Las Vegas casino interests.

The Nevada Republicans, Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, had lobbied the Interior Department on MGM’s behalf, joining a group that included Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who also have lobbied against the proposed Connecticut casino.

In a July 28 letter, Amodei wrote Interior Department Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason that he was “concerned about the unprecedented casino-authorization framework proposed by Connecticut’s two federally authorized tribes.”

“Under that framework, the tribes seek to expand off reservation gaming without going through the procedures mandated by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the department’s regulations,” Amodei wrote.

A member of the House Appropriations Committee with authority over the Interior Department’s budget, Amodei wrote the letter on behalf of MGM.

“MGM is an employer in Nevada, and we want to make sure the BIA does the right thing,” said Amodei spokeswoman Logan Ramsey when asked about the congressman’s interest in the issue.

In a statement, Doba slammed Amodei and Heller as MGM’s “bought and paid for congressman and senator,” and decried that “they were actually CC’ed ,” on Cason’s letter to the tribes.

Cason in May had sent the tribes a very different letter that said the Trump administration agreed with the Obama administration that the “existing exclusivity agreement with the state would not be affected by a new commercial agreement that would be jointly and exclusively owned by the tribes.”

A roulette wheel in the Casino of the Wind at Mohegan Sun Courtesy of Mohegan Sun

But that “technical assistance” letter, and the earlier one the tribes received from the Obama administration, warned that a final determination could not be made until the tribes submitted a formal proposal to the Interior Department, which MMCT Venture did on Aug. 2.

The tribes spend on lobbying in Washington, but MGM spends a lot more, about $2 million so far this year. Topping its list of concerns are “monitoring Indian gaming issues,’ and former staffers of retired Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid are among MGM’s lobbyists.

CT lawmakers lobby, too

The Trump administration has tightened the rules on Indian gaming. Zinke has ordered all off-reservation gaming applications to be reviewed by his office, not the BIA, and the nation’s tribes say he has reversed the Obama administration practice of approving “land into trust” applications that allow tribes to build off-reservation casinos.

Attorneys for the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan tribes recently responded to Zinke’s request for additional information, insisting the secretary weigh in on the amendment, even though Zinke told them he is concerned doing so would “indirectly facilitate the operation of a commercial casino gaming facility.”

The tribes pointed out that two Oklahoma tribes, the Chickasaw and the Cherokee Nation, received approval in 2004 and 2005  of amendments to their compact with the state that allowed them to establish gaming devices in racetracks in their states

The Pequot and Mohegan tribes also are arguing that under IGRA a compact is to be “deemed approved” if the BIA does not reject it within 45 days. They say their amendments, submitted on Aug. 2, should be considered approved because they were not rejected.

With it’s Sept. 15 letter, the Interior Department did respond within 45 days, saying it was sending the amendments back to the tribes and requesting further information.

Last week Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, joined by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, wrote to Zinke asking him to approve the amendments.

“Nothing in the department’s approval of such amendments would actually authorize an additional casino in Connecticut,” the lawmakers wrote. “The approval simply means that if an additional casino owned and operated jointly by the tribes is authorized by the state of Connecticut, it would not affect existing agreements.”

Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel of MGM Resorts International, said the lawmakers’ letter “raises no new issues and provides no new information that would change the Department of the Interior’s decision not to approve the Tribes’ submissions.”

“It also does not address the risks to the state of proceeding with MMCT’s proposed casino without Interior approval that have been emphasized by Attorney General (George) Jepsen’s office,” Clinton said.

Jepsen has warned of a number of pitfalls in the plan to build a new casino in Connecticut.

“It cannot be ignored that there has been a change in presidential administrations,” Jepsen wrote Malloy. “There can be no guarantee that the Interior Department will follow past practices in the exercise of its authority, nor even that it would adhere to the limited views in its technical assistance letter. Notably, in his past business practices, President Trump was involved in pursuing casino gaming interests in Connecticut…”

In addition, in 1993 Trump – then owner of three casinos in Atlantic City — filed a lawsuit against the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, that said the law gives advantage to “a very limited class of citizens,” American Indians, at the expense of other citizens.

In his suit, Trump attacked the Mashantucket Pequots’ Foxwoods casino, which had been recently established through IGRA.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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