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 on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut on June 13, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Tribes welcome probe into Trump administration's handling of gaming agreements

The Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior is investigating the Trump administration's handling of gaming agreements for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe, POLITICO reports.

The tribes submitted the agreements to the Bureau of Indian Affairs last August. Under federal law, they expected a decision within 45 days.

But documents obtained by POLITICO through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Trump administration, on the same day the decision was due, abruptly changed course and told the tribes they weren't getting an answer. According to nearly identical letters sent to the tribes, the BIA said it didn't have enough information to process the agreements.

The exact reason for the departure, though, remains largely a mystery outside of the Department of Interior, 1849 C Street NW in Washington, D.C. The key documents obtained by POLITICO were almost entirely redacted -- nearly every line is blacked out under a FOIA exemption for "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency."

But the few lines not redacted speak directly to the Trump administration's treatment of the tribes. With respect to the Mohegan Tribe, one line talks about Interior's "Authority to Not Act on a Class III Gaming Compact Submitted for Review" while another talks about "Processing of Amendment to Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Procedures."

The trust relationship at work? A document obtained by POLITICO could explain why the Trump administration has failed to approve gaming agreements for two tribes, if only anyone were able to read the heavily-redacted memo.

More information is likely to come out as a result of a lawsuit filed by the tribes against Interior. But the tribes are also welcoming the internal review by the Inspector General.

"We are grateful there's an IG investigation into this issue because since last fall, none of the department's actions have passed the smell test,” Andrew Doba, a spokesman for MMCT Venture, which the tribes created to pursue a new casino, told POLITICO. “Something clearly happened to pollute the process, which should be problematic for an administration that promised to drain the swamp."

The tribes secured approval under Connecticut law to open the new casino, which will not be operated pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The site of the project won't be placed in trust either.

But both tribes operate casinos on their reservations pursuant to IGRA. They also share 25 percent of their slot machine revenues with the state in exchange for exclusivity.

To protect that relationship, the tribes updated their arrangements with the state and sent them to the BIA for review on August 1, 2017. Exactly 45 days later, on September 15, 2017, the BIA said it wasn't going to make a decision.

Though Mike Black, a career bureaucrat who was serving as director of the BIA at the time, signed the letters sent to the tribes, they were edited at the last minute by higher-level political officials, the documents obtained by POLITICO show. A September 14, 2017, email makes mention of "Jim's edits" -- meaning Jim Cason, who serves as the Associate Deputy Secretary of the Interior, a position that did not require Senate confirmation.

Before the debacle, the tribes honored Cason during the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference last June. At a special presentation during the main assembly, Mashantucket and Mohegan leaders gave him a blanket and said he was helping them out as they pursued the new casino.

“Jim Cason has been there for us," Mohegan Chairman Kevin Brown said at the time. The conference was held on his tribe's reservation.

With federal support in hand, the tribes had hoped to open their casino in East Windsor by the end of this year. They chose the site in order to compete with a $950 million commercial casino going up about 15 miles away in Springfield, Massachusetts.

MGM Resorts International, the non-Indian firm behind the rival project, has engaged in legal, political and lobbying efforts in hopes of blocking the tribes. The documents obtained by POLITICO show that BIA staff were ready to approve the gaming agreements, or at least let them take effect, prior to the deadline.

But the situation apparently changed after Cason met with and discussed the issue with MGM's lobbyists and two Republican lawmakers from Nevada who support MGM, POLITICO reported. The firm's team of lobbyists includes Gale Norton, who served as Secretary of the Interior during the George W. Bush administration and was Cason's boss during that time.

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

The Springfield casino is expected to open in September. As the date approaches, there is speculation, refuted by MGM, that the firm is interested in acquiring the license for a different project under construction near Boston, a more lucrative market.

If that were to happen, MGM would have to give up Springfield because state law limits commercial operators to one license. Some observers told The Hartford Courant that the tribes are in a position to step in but they have not confirmed their interest in doing so.

The $2.4 billion Wynn Boston Harbor is to be operated by Wynn Resorts. But its license is under review because former CEO Steve Wynn reportedly did not disclose his handling of alleged sexual harassment complaints, which included monetary payouts, as he sought regulatory approval in Massachusetts.

Read More on the Story:
Interior rejected staff advice when scuttling tribes' casino (POLITICO April 22, 2018)
Tribes A Top Candidate To Take Over Springfield Casino If MGM Moves To Wynn Site In Boston (The Hartford Courant April 22, 2018)

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