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 reverses course on tribal gaming agreement in Connecticut

Without explanation, the Trump administration has reversed course on a gaming agreement that paves the way for a new tribally-owned casino in Connecticut.

The Mohegan Tribe had been kept in the dark for 10 months after submitting its Class III gaming compact to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for review. The wait finally ended with the publication of a notice published in the Federal Register on Friday, stating that the agreement is "considered to have been approved."

The document, which was signed by John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, overtly acknowledges that federal law requires action on a gaming compact "within 45 days of its submission." But it does not otherwise explain why that never happened in this situation.

“The Department of the Interior has made effective the tribal-state agreement amendments which it was obligated to do months ago," three Democratic members of Connecticut's delegation to Congress pointed out in a press release on Thursday, after the BIA sent the notice to the Federal Register at 8:45am that morning.

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

The notice does not speak to the Mohegan Tribe's partner in the new casino either. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation also has been kept in the dark since August 2, 2017, when both tribes submitted their agreements to the BIA for review.

Exactly 45 days later, the BIA offered a murky response. Instead of approving -- or even rejecting -- the updated agreements, the agency told the tribes on September 2, 2017, that action was "unnecessary at this time."

The answer left the tribes in an awkward position. Even though they do not need federal approval to open the new casino -- it was authorized under state law -- they promised not to move forward unless their agreements were published in the Federal Register.

So the tribes went to court to compel publication of the notices. That's when the Trump administration came up with a curious justification with respect to the Mashantuckets -- due to the way the tribe's original agreement was approved back in the 1990s, the BIA was not required to take action within 45 days, government attorneys argued.

The response was silent with respect to the Mohegans. But documents obtained by POLITICO through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Trump administration, on September 2, 2017, decided not to approve the tribal agreements after higher-level political officials at Interior reviewed them.

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.

The exact rationale for that move, though, remains unclear. A subsequent document is almost entirely blacked out but the title of the memorandum offers a big clue: it's a justification for the Secretary of the Interior to "not act on a Class III gaming compact submitted for review."

The Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior has since launched an investigation into the matter. That might be why the Mohegan Tribe's agreement was finally published, the Democratic lawmakers suggested.

"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,” the Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), Sen. Chris Murphy (D) and Rep. Joe Courtney (D) said in their joint statement.

The tribes had been hoping to open their casino before the end of this year. The timing, as well as the location of the project, was a direct response to a non-Indian commercial facility going up just across the border in Massachusetts.

The facility, known as MGM Springfield, is in fact opening ahead of schedule on August 24.

MGM Resorts International, the developer of the project, has been lobbying the Trump administration in hopes of derailing the tribes after failing to stop them in court. The firm also has dangled a rival casino in Connecticut, though state lawmakers have not bought in.

The tribal casino is to be located in the city of East Windsor. MGM Springfield is less than 15 miles away.

“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,” a spokesperson for the tribal venture said in a statement quoted in the Connecticut media. “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.”

Read More on the Story:
Interior relents on Connecticut casino deal (The Connecticut Mirror May 31, 2018)
Interior to publish notice of Mohegan-state gaming amendment (The New London Day May 31, 2018)
Feds issue approval for tribes' proposed Connecticut casino (The Associated Press June 1, 2018)

An Opinion:
Editorial: Continue working with tribes on gaming issues (The New London Day June 3, 2018)

Federal Register Notice:
Indian Gaming; Tribal-State Class III Gaming Compact Taking Effect in the State of Connecticut (June 1, 2018)

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