Wisconsin tribe sues BIA over off-reservation gaming

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A Wisconsin tribe sued the Bush administration on Friday, accusing two political appointees of changing the land-into-trust process to block off-reservation casinos.

The St. Croix Band of Lake Superior Chippewa wants to open a casino in Beloit, more than 300 miles from the reservation. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is a partner in the project.

The two tribes filed their land-into-trust application during the start of the Bush administration six years ago. But despite strong local support, the BIA has yet to make a decision on the proposal.

Instead, the St. Croix Band says the Bush administration has made a slight change to the process that makes it harder on tribes. The change -- made by Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Assistant Secretary Carl Artman without tribal consultation or public notice -- has affected a few dozen gaming projects in Washington, D.C.

"For over six years, we have followed the rules and done everything required of us by the bureau," said Chair Hazel Hindsley. "For Secretary Kempthorne and Assistant Secretary Artman to change the rules at this late date in the approval process is not only unfair, it is illegal."

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in DC, accuses Kempthorne of injecting his "negative personal views toward off-reservation gaming" into the process. When he was governor of Idaho, Kempthorne opposed off-reservation casinos.

Artman, who is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, has not stated whether he supports or opposes off-reservation gaming. But his tribe is seeking to open a casino in its ancestral homeland in New York.

For that reason, Artman has recused himself from land-into-trust and gaming issues in New York. But he's also delaying other decisions -- such as the St. Croix and Bad River project -- in order to develop an entirely new policy on off-reservation gaming.

"We're going to move forward when we have a policy we feel good about," Artman said at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas last month. "I think that will be shortly."

In an interview following the conference, Artman told Indianz.Com that he hoped to circulate a draft sometime this month. He indicated that most tribes would not be consulted because they aren't affected by the policy.

At G2E, Artman spoke about the change at issue in the St. Croix Band's lawsuit and said it will help speed up the process. The change affects the order in which the BIA considers a land-into-trust application for an off-reservation casino.

Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a tribe must obtain the approval of the BIA and the consent of the state governor for an off-reservation casino. Since IGRA was passed in 1988, only three tribes have completed this process, known as a two-part determination.

In the history of IGRA, the BIA has usually completed the two-part determination step first. But the St. Croix Band says the Bush administration is looking at the land-into-trust application first in order to make it easier for the BIA to reject off-reservation casinos.

"What that forces us to do is to exercise the trust responsibilities first before we get to policy issues that lay behind IGRA," Artman said at the conference.

In an August 2007 letter to the tribe, the BIA defended the change in sequence as "appropriate and logical." "We do not believe that this represents a policy change since the department has never before specified a particular sequence for making the two decisions involved in this process," the letter stated.

The tribe followed up its complaint with a motion for a temporary retraining order that was filed today. It seeks to maintain the "status quo" before the court resolves the dispute.

The lawsuit is the second to challenge the Bush administration on off-reservation gaming. Last month, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of New York asked a federal court to force Kempthrone and Artman to make a decision on a proposed casino.

"Indian Country wants justice," Lorraine White, one of the tribe's chiefs, told Artman at G2E.

Court Documents:
Complaint | Motion for Temporary Restraining Order

Relevant Links:
Beloit Casino Project - http://www.beloitcasinoproject.com
St. Croix Chippewa Enterprises - http://stcroixenterprises.com

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Bush holding back off-reservation gaming proposals (11/16)
BIA tackles land-into-trust backlog (11/9)
New York tribe pushes Interior to act on casino land (11/1)
BIA still having trouble accounting for land-into-trust (10/5)
Cason explains misgivings on land-into-trust (4/20)
Artman jumps into job as new head of BIA (4/12)
Artman highlights priorities as head of BIA (4/5)
Leadership changes at BIA under Artman (4/2)
New York governor approves off-reservation casino (2/20)
Off-reservation gaming concerns at Interior (2/16)
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