From left: Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Mohegan Tribe Chairman Kevin Brown, Ohkay Owingeh council member Joe Garcia and Leander "Russ" McDonald, the president of the United Tribes Technical College. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Trump administration hit for keeping two tribes in Connecticut in the dark

This post has been updated with a comment from the Department of the Interior.

A blanket and honoring ceremony didn't work. A lawsuit doesn't seem to be advancing matters either.

So maybe in this age of presidential Twitter rants, costly office makeovers and cheap housing for Cabinet officials, a public relations assist will pay off for two tribes whose gaming project in Connecticut has been held up by the Trump administration for eight months and counting.

The National Congress of American Indians sure hopes so. With the release of a letter on Thursday, the largest inter-tribal organization in the United States waded into a classic controversy: the Washington whodunit.

Only in this situation, it's more of a who hasn't done it. And that would be Secretary Ryan Zinke of the leader of the Department of the Interior, whose oft-repeated mantra of "sovereignty has to mean something" hasn't meant much for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe.

Eight months ago, on August 2, 2017, the tribes sent their respective gaming agreements to Zinke's department for review. According to their interpretation of federal law and regulation, a response was expected within 45 days.

Someone in Washington must have thought the same, because exactly 45 days later, a response from the Bureau of Indian Affairs arrived. On September 15, 2017, a top career official who was about to be shipped to Montana under Zinke's orders informed the tribes that the agency's review of their agreements had been "completed."

Veterans honor song at NCAI

Veterans honor song by Leander "Russ" McDonald (Spirit Lake Nation) at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians. The event is being held at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut. June 13, 2017. #NCAIMY17

Posted by Indianz.Com on Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Video by Indianz.Com: Veterans honor song at NCAI

Except completed doesn't mean completed under this administration. Despite the deliverance of the letter to both tribes, Zinke's department has yet to publish notice of their agreements in the Federal Register as seemingly required by law.

As a result, their $400 million gaming project remains in limbo while a non-Indian competitor basks in the glow of a high-powered influence campaign and the September opening of a $950 million casino less than 20 minutes away.

"These amendments are very important to economic development for both tribal governments as well as the state of Connecticut, and publication of amended compacts is within your duties under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act," NCAI President Jefferson Keel said in a letter to Zinke.

"We urge you to act with dispatch," Keel added.

Last June, NCAI welcomed Zinke to their mid-year conference, which was coincidentally hosted by the Mohegan Tribe. In what was his first appearance before the organization, he was presented with a Pendleton blanket and was honored with a song in recognition of his status as a military veteran.

“Sovereignty has to mean something,” said Zinke, a U.S. Navy SEAL commander has been adopted into the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, whose reservation is located in his home state of Montana. “Sovereignty has to be more than a name.”

Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior, at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians on June 13, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Zinke wasn't the only Interior official embraced at the meeting. After he departed for an another engagement in New England, a delegation of Mashantucket and Mohegan leaders made a special presentation of their own to Jim Cason, a high-ranking political appointee at the department.

Cason, according to Mashantucket Chairman Rodney Butler, "stood up for Indian Country, stood up for that government-to-government relationship" not just once, but twice, when he informed the tribes in two different advisory letters that their gaming agreements would pass muster in Washington and pave the way for their new development.

“I also have the privilege of working with a Secretary who is very much aligned with Indian Country's interests,” Cason said as he was presented with a Pendleton of his own, though no one sang any songs in his honor.

Eight months later, someone at Interior is still holding onto those blankets and those gaming agreements. But the department isn't saying much for now.

"At this time the matter is now in litigation and it is not appropriate for the department to respond outside of the court process," Nedra Darling, a spokesperson for the BIA, said on Friday.

As part of a lawsuit pending in federal court, the Trump administration has offered some guidance, though not particularly helpful for the tribes. According to the Department of Justice, Interior is not required to make a decision for the Mashantuckets within 45 days -- or any number of days for that matter -- because they opened their Foxwoods Resort Casino under a provision of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that comes into play when a state refuses to agree to a Class III gaming compact.

"The Secretary therefore has no discrete and mandatory obligation to take action," a February 5 motion to dismiss the Mashantuckets from the case reads.

The tribes have since responded to the motion, calling it “a hyper-technical reading of the law," and the government filed a final reply last week. A decision hasn't been made on the matter as of Friday morning, according to a review of federal court records.

The Mohegans, on the other hand, opened Mohegan Sun with a Class III gaming compact. But government attorneys have yet to explain why Interior hasn't followed the 45-day deadline that has been followed in every other situation since January 2017, when President Donald Trump took office.

"Very respectfully, we urge you to fulfill this responsibility under IGRA and publish notice in the Federal Register immediately," Keel wrote in his letter to Zinke.

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

In response to growing competition in New England, the Mashantuckets and Mohegans joined forces to pursue a new casino. They secured approval from the Connecticut Legislature and selected a site in East Windsor, a city far from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, which are located in the southeastern part of the state.

Since the tribes are pursuing the project outside of the framework of IGRA, and since the site in East Windsor won't be placed in trust, approval from Interior is not needed for it. In a different lawsuit, a federal appeals court upheld the legality of the state law that authorized the new casino.

But the Mashantuckets, as part of their federally-approved Class III gaming procedures, and the Mohegans, through their federally-approved Class III gaming compact, have been promised regional exclusivity for Class III games like slot machines and card games. In exchange, the state gets 25 percent of their slot revenues.

To protect that relationship, the tribes worked with the state of Connecticut to ensure the new casino won't affect their rights. They also thought Cason, in his role as associate deputy secretary at Interior, had assured them their approach was correct.

“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 last June.

The tribes had expected to open their casino later this year, around the same time as the non-Indian facility in Springfield, Massachusetts. But they only got around to demolition work last month and have not said when they will be ready to game.

MGM Resorts International, the developer in Massachusetts, has made no secret of its intent to derail the tribes. Through litigation, lobbying of the Trump administration and proposals to open a different casino in Connecticut, the firm has so far fended off the potential competition. East Windsor is only about 15 miles from Springfield.

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