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

Without explanation, the Department of Interior said Thursday it has reversed course and is accepting at least one of the two gambling amendments necessary for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to jointly construct a casino in East Windsor.

The action by Interior is a victory for the two federally recognized tribes engaged in a war over casino market share with MGM Resorts International, but does not ensure a clear path to their breaking ground on a casino intended to blunt the loss of business to the MGM Springfield resort slated to open in August.

The state’s authorization of the East Windsor casino in 2017 was contingent on Interior’s accepting amendments to the tribes’ agreements with Connecticut, a guarantee that the project would not violate an existing deal under which the tribes’ pay 25 percent of the slots revenue from their casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

But the Interior Department, after lobbying by MGM, declined to act on the amendments. That prompted a lawsuit by the tribes and state and a congressional request for the inspector general to investigate the department’s role in blocking the casino in East Windsor.

Now, the Interior Department says in an online posting that the acceptance of an amendment to Mohegan’s gaming compact with Connecticut will be formalized Friday with the publication in the Federal Register. The department said nothing of the Pequot amendment; but the tribe, which has been in talks with Interior, was optimistic.

“We are pleased that the department is taking this step and we expect similar action on the Mashantucket Pequot tribal amendments in the very near future,” said Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes’ joint venture, MMCT. “Our goal has never changed.  We want to do right by Connecticut and to preserve the strong relationship between our tribal nations and the state.  Today’s decision is the latest step in our overall goal to preserve thousands of good paying jobs and millions in state tax revenue.”

The state Attorney General’s office said Interior’s action was not prompted by any development in the state-tribal lawsuit against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The four congressional Democrats from Connecticut who initiated the inspector general’s investigation, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and U.S. Reps. John B. Larson of the 1st District and Joe Courtney of the 2nd District, called the decision overdue.

“The Department of the Interior has made effective the Tribal-State agreement amendments which it was obligated to do months ago,” they said in a joint statement.   “We are hopeful that this development allows the project to now move forward in the interest of tribes and the state.  As the Inspector General continues its investigation, that timing will no doubt become a new focus.”

Spokespersons for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released this statement regarding their action: “To facilitate a more timely resolution of these complicated issues, and without determining whether the Mohegan compact amendment is actually consistent with the statutory framework of IGRA [the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act], we note that IGRA does provide for publication after 45 days. Therefore we are publishing notice of this compact amendment.”

East Windsor, a community of about 12,000 people between Hartford and Springfield, already has granted local approval for the tribal partnership to build a casino just off I-91 on the site of a long-vacant movie multiplex.

The tribes expect a battle with MGM on another front: In U.S. District Court.

A previous suit by MGM, filed before passage of the authorization bill in 2017, claimed that the state could not exclusively deal with the tribes on a commercial casino license without violating the Equal Protection and Commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution. It was dismissed as premature.

MGM has since tried to bolster its legal standing to sue, contracting with a Bridgeport land owner for a casino site, should the General Assembly open the state to a competitive process for casino expansion. The company broadly hinted Thursday at further legal action.

“Unlike the Interior Department, MGM’s position has not changed: We remain committed to a transparent process that would give all parties an equal opportunity to compete in Connecticut,” MGM said in a statement. “We believe our proposed world-class entertainment complex in Bridgeport is the best option for creating new jobs and revenue, and we will vigorously advocate for our legal rights — including by challenging Public Act 17-89’s unconstitutional no-bid scheme —  if that is what it takes to prevail.”

MGM also questioned Interior’s unexplained turnabout, much as the tribes did when Interior refused to accept the amendments, contradicting its previous communications with them.

“Today’s Federal Register notice raises more questions than it answers,” MGM said. “The notice provides no supporting reasoning and contradicts not only the Interior Department’s prior ruling, but also the clear limits on off-reservation gaming imposed by federal law.  After consulting with our attorneys, we can find no legal justification for the Interior Department’s unprecedented action.  In an effort to shed light on these serious legal questions, MGM will file a Freedom of Information Act request to uncover the process and inputs that led to today’s notice.”

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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