Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary at the Department of the Interior, is presented with a blanket by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe during the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut on June 13, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Connecticut tribes heap praise on senior Trump administration official

Two Connecticut tribes are crediting the Trump administration with helping them gain support for a new casino in the state.

Just last week, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe cleared a huge hurdle when state lawmakers approved plans for the facility. Although the bill has yet to be signed into law, leaders of both tribes say Jim Cason, a top official at the Department of the Interior, played a key role in addressing doubts about their project.

“Jim Cason has been there for us ... to ensure that our forward movement, our economic development, our partnership as tribes is respected,” Mohegan Chairman Kevin Brown said in reference to the newly-named Associate Deputy Secretary, a political position at the department.

“Interior stood up for Indian Country, stood up for that government-to-government relationship,” Mashantucket Chairman Rodney Butler added as he and Brown presented Cason with a blanket on Tuesday during the mid-year conference of National Congress of American Indians.

As lawmakers were considering the bill to authorize the casino, critics said the new facility would violate the tribes' gaming rights. Each shares 25 percent of their slot machine revenues with the state in exchange for exclusivity so the new development was seen as undermining the existing agreements.

But a letter signed by Cason and distributed to lawmakers last month indicated that wasn't the case. While the document by no means represents a final or even official decision from Interior, Butler and Brown believe it helped them get over the finish line.

“We're gratefully honored that Jim stepped up as he did,” Butler said at the NCAI conference, which is being hosted by the Mohegans at their Mohegan Sun resort.

The New England Casino Race: Tribal and commercial gaming facilities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island

The praise for Cason stands in stark contrast to his record in Indian affairs. Less than a decade ago, when he held the same title at Interior during the Bush administration, he helped carry out a controversial policy that punished tribes for seeking casinos away from their reservations.

The Mohegans and the Pequots are in fact seeking an “off-reservation” casino, Chairman Brown acknowledged. But unlike their fellow tribes, who were knocked down one by one without prior consultation about the policy, which was eventually repudiated by the Obama administration in 2011, they won't need Interior's approval because they are pursuing their project outside of the framework of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Cason, for his part, downplayed his role in helping out the tribes. Even though he readily accepted their gift, he said credit belonged to longtime employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an attorney from the Office of the Solicitor at Interior who authored the letter he ultimately signed.

“It's my honor to be back at Interior and I'm honored to have the opportunity to work with Indian Country again,” Cason said at NCAI.

“I also have the privilege of working with a Secretary who is very much aligned with Indian Country's interests,” Cason added, in reference to Secretary Ryan Zinke, who spoke at the conference earlier in the day.

The Mohegans and the Pequots, whose Foxwoods Resort Casino is barely 10 miles from Mohegan Sun, have historically engaged in friendly competition for gaming dollars. But both took big hits during the national economic recession and struggled to recover as commercial facilities opened throughout New England.

That's why they see their new casino as a crucial project and that's why they are choosing to build it in the city of East Windsor. The site is far from their existing casinos but it's only about 13 miles from a $950 million commercial facility going up right across the border in Massachusetts.

The tribes are hoping to break ground on the $400 million development later this year and finish it before the end of 2018. That means it would open around the same time as the one operated by MGM Resorts International, whose executives strongly lobbied against the tribes.

Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) has not yet signed S.B.957 but he too had praise for the tribes when he spoke to NCAI on Tuesday. He said they have contributed enormously to the state's economy and he views his relationship with them as one of trust.

“We have a legal, moral obligation to the tribal nations,” Malloy said.

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