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

The U.S. Interior Department told a federal court Monday that Connecticut’s refusal to negotiate a gaming compact with the Mashantucket Pequots nearly 30 years ago creates a fatal flaw in the state’s legal efforts today to help the Pequot and Mohegan tribes compete with MGM Resorts International.

Joined by Connecticut, the two tribes asked in a lawsuit filed in November that the U.S. District Court force Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to approve amendments to their gaming agreements with the state, clearing the way for them to jointly develop a commercial casino in East Windsor to compete with an MGM facility under construction in Springfield.

Zinke has refused to approve or reject the amendments, and the tribes contend that they are deemed approved under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act if the secretary does not reject them within 45 days of their submittal to the Interior Department.

But in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the Interior Department said Monday that the 45-day deadline applies only to gaming compacts produced by state and tribal negotiations. The Pequots’ gaming agreement with Connecticut, the department said, came through “Secretarial procedures,” an alternate administrative process.

“IGRA contains no mandatory deadlines — or any deadlines at all — for the approval or disapproval of proposed amendments to Secretarial procedures,” the government said in its motion.

The Mashantucket Pequots therefore have no legal standing to sue, undermining the claims by the state and the Mohegans, the Interior Department said.

“In addition, this Court should hold that neither the state nor Mohegan have standing to assert claims with regard to Mashantucket’s gaming procedures, nor does Mashantucket have standing to assert any claims with regard to Mohegan’s compact with the state,” the department said.

If the Interior Department prevails, it will be a consequence of Connecticut’s intransigence in dealing with the Pequots in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In the late 1980s, Connecticut refused to negotiate a gaming compact with the Pequots after they won federal recognition as a tribe, ignoring a federal law requiring that the state negotiate a compact in good faith. The tribe filed suit against Connecticut, and a federal judge ordered the state to enter into negotiations and mediation.

“After negotiations failed, the parties submitted their last, best offer compacts, whereupon the mediator selected the state’s compact,” the Interior Department said. “The state, however, failed to consent to the selected compact.”

So the mediator followed the procedure prescribed by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and and submitted the compact to the secretary of interior, who then authorized the tribe to open a casino, Foxwoods. “Mashantucket has been operating under those procedures since they were issued in 1991,” the Interior Department said.

The Mohegan tribe negotiated a compact with the state after its federal recognition.

Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes’ joint venture, MMCT, noted that the Interior Department in two years of correspondence never raised an issue about the origins of the Mashantucket Pequots’ gaming agreement with Connecticut.

“For two years, the Department of Interior treated the compact and the procedures as two sides of the same coin,” Doba said. “Simply put, one was equal to and the same as the other. Now, because of lobbying from outside parties, they’re changing their position.”

MGM has been lobbying the Interior Department not to accept the amendments. The state law authorizing the East Windsor casino was conditioned on the Interior Department’s acceptance of the amendments.

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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