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)

News reports link Secretary Zinke's criminal woes to tribal gaming

A tribal lobbying scandal hobbled the Department of the Interior during the George W. Bush era and it looks like another one is brewing in the nation's capital.

And just like the last one, it's another Republican administration in the cross-hairs. News reports are linking a possible criminal probe of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to a stalled gaming project in Connecticut after word of the bombshell development surfaced this week in the mainstream media.

But so far, there is little concrete to go on. Neither the Department of Justice, nor the Office of Inspector General at Interior, which is said to have referred a matter involving Zinke for potential inquiry, have confirmed whether there is such a probe, much less what it's about.

What is known is that the Inspector General has been looking into the circumstances of the Connecticut casino development. The Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation have said Zinke was improperly influenced by a lobbying campaign spearheaded by a non-Indian gaming company.

In fact, MGM Resorts International, which boasts nearly $10 billion in revenue, has made no secret of its desire to derail the tribes. The firm even hired former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to lobby to get the new administration to reject their casino.

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

By failing to take concrete action on the tribal project, Zinke has essentially done just that. While the Trump administration published notice of the Mohegan Tribe's updated gaming agreement -- almost 10 months later than anticipated in federal law -- it has refused to do the same for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, thus preventing them from opening the casino.

The delay has benefited MGM in a significant way. The company was able to open its $900 million casino in neighboring Massachusetts in August without facing additional competition from the tribes.

The tribes have been planning to open their casino in East Windsor, less than 15 miles from the MGM casino. The facility brought in $42.5 million in net revenue in its first five months in operation, The Springfield Republican reported.

"During the quarter, we successfully opened MGM Springfield, which has been well received by our customers," Jim Murren, Chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, said in a press release on Tuesday.

It's not clear why the Trump administration has delayed action on the rival casino. Up until last summer, one of Zinke's top aides, Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason, had been telling the tribes that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was going to allow their agreements to pass muster in Washington.

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 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Believing that to be the case, the two tribes held an honoring ceremony for Cason during the 2016 mid-year conference of the National Congress of American Indians, which was hosted by the Mohegans on their reservation in southeastern Connecticut.

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 agreements would eventually be accepted in D.C.

After he was presented with a Pendleton blanket by the tribes Cason said he enjoyed the "privilege of working with a Secretary who is very much aligned with Indian Country's interests.” Zinke also had spoken at the event and was presented with a Pendleton as a song was performed in his honor.

So what has changed in D.C. since that event? According to documents obtained by POLITICO, the BIA was going to approve the tribes agreements until higher-level officials at Interior were asked for their input.

The leadership team at Interior includes Zinke, Cason and Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who is being groomed to serve as Secretary should his boss depart the Trump administration, POLITICO reported.

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.

Bernhardt, who arrived at Interior in the month following the NCAI conference, served in senior positions at the department during the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal during the Bush years. He emerged unscathed even as one of his predecessors, former Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, wound up in federal prison for his role in the debacle.

As for Norton, who has been part of MGM's lobbying team, she repeatedly defended, protected and shielded Griles despite numerous questions about his dealings at Interior, including on Indian gaming issues. The Inspector General at the time had raised many alarms about the leadership at the department.

"Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior," Earl E. Devaney said in testimony to Congress in September 2006. Griles pleaded guilty a few months later.

The Office of Inspector General at Interior has been overseen by Deputy Inspector General Mary L. Kendall since 2009. Though she was nominated to serve as the permanent leader, Republicans in the Senate failed to confirm her.

But just a couple of weeks ago, it looked like Kendall was about to be demoted in the midst of her office's numerous investigations into Zinke's activities. According to numerous news reports, the Trump administration was going to name someone else as the "acting" Inspector General at Interior, someone who was already a part of the president's team.

The transfer, though, never happened. That Trump team player ended up leaving the Trump administration altogether, according to numerous news reports.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut casino project remains in litigation. Though a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has amended its original complaint to address the way its gaming agreement was handled by the Trump administration.

The Mohegan Tribe was part of the case but removed itself after its gaming agreement was published in the Federal Register in June. The state of Connecticut is also a party, serving as a plaintiff in support of the casino.

There's also another party involved. MGM Resorts International was granted approval to join the case -- on the side of the Trump administration.

Read More on the Story
Justice Department May Be Investigating Interior Department Handling of Connecticut Casino Expansion (The Hartford Courant October 31, 2018)
D.C. Buzz: Zinke may have had hidden agenda in position against Conn. tribes in casino war (The Connecticut Post October 31, 2018)
Ryan Zinke Faces Increased Ethics Scrutiny (The New York Times October 31, 2018)
A Guide to the Ryan Zinke Investigations (The New York Times October 31, 2018)
Interior watchdog refers Zinke probe to Justice Department (The Associated Press November 1, 2018)
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might face a criminal investigation (Vox October 31, 2018)
Zinke could face months-long Justice investigation (The Hill November 1, 2018)
Activists Who Helped Oust Pruitt Target Trump’s Interior Secretary (Bloomberg November 1, 2018)

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