From left: Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, then-Mohegan Tribe Chairman Kevin Brown, Ohkay Owingeh council member Joe Garcia and Leander "Russ" McDonald, the president of the United Tribes Technical College, share the stage at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians in Connecticut on June 13, 2017 Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

'Significant political pressure': Former Secretary Zinke under scrutiny in tribal lawsuit

Did former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who resigned under a cloud of investigations, succumb to "significant political pressure" in connection with a casino sought by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Mohegan Tribe?

The answer to that question may soon be known. A federal judge is allowing the Mashantucket Tribe to proceed with a lawsuit that alleges Zinke derailed the development in Connecticut after being pressured by a non-Indian gaming company, their allies in Congress and even the White House.

"The administrative record or other evidence may ultimately demonstrate that the alleged political pressure did not occur or affect the Secretary’s decision," Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote in a decision issued Friday. "But at this stage, plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that significant political pressure was brought to bear on the issue and the Secretary may have improperly succumbed to such pressure."

The tribes joined forces in hopes of opening a new casino that would compete with a commercial facility already under construction in neighboring Massachusetts. But their hopes were dashed when the Bureau of Indian Affairs refused to sign off on their respective gaming agreements in the fall of 2017.

Former Secretary Zinke provided the tribes with only "vague, cursory reasoning" for his inaction, Contreras noted in the decision.

The BIA eventually relented and approved the Mohegan Tribe's agreement nine months later, without so much as an explanation. But the Mashantucket Tribe remains in limbo and the lawsuit could finally reveal why Zinke never made a decision despite telling Indian Country that "sovereignty has to mean something" during a meeting on the Mohegan Reservation in June 2017.

Without a clear answer from the Washington, the tribes weren't able to move forward with their development. The delay benefited MGM Resorts International, a non-Indian company that was able to open a casino in neighboring Massachusetts last August without having to deal with the additional competition.

Since the debut of MGM Springfield, a $960 million development, the tribes have endured a steady loss in slot machine revenues. At Foxwoods Resort Casino, owned by the Pequots, they dropped 8.5 percent in January when compared to a year prior.

The Mohegan Sun didn't have a good month either. Slot revenues fell 9.4 percent, the Mohegan Tribe announced on Friday.

Read More on the Story
Judge revives lawsuit over casino blocked under Zinke (POLITICO February 15, 2019)
Mohegan Sun slot revenue tumbled, too (The New London Day February 15, 2019)
Mohegan Jan. slot revenues down 9.3% (Hartford Business February 15, 2019)
EW casino champion quits top tribal post (The Manchester Journal Inquirer February 14, 2019)
Month seven: Foxwoods' Jan. slot revenue down 8.5% (Hartford Business February 14, 2019)

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