Artist's rendering of the Tribal Winds Casino, to be owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe in East Windsor, Connecticut. Image: Tribal Winds Casino

New Interior leader had 'absolutely nothing to do with' stalled tribal casino

The new leader of the Department of the Interior is issuing a strong denial in connection with a stalled tribally-owned casino in Connecticut.

In his prior role as Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt met with opponents of the casino, The Guardian reported. But a spokesperson said the the April 2018 meeting had "absolutely nothing to do with" the development.

“Mr. Bernhardt had absolutely nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing," the spokesperson told The Guardian.

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe joined forces to open the casino in response to growing competition in New England. Bernhardt's meeting, which went undisclosed until The Guardian's report, was with lawyers who represent MGM Resorts International, a non-Indian firm that opposed the tribal project.

But Bernhardt, who now serves as Secretary of the Interior, claims the meeting was about the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and its failed bid for federal recognition, The Guardian reported. The tribe, also based in Connecticut, saw its fortunes reverse during the George W. Bush administration, when Bernhardt served in other roles at the department.

Chief Richard Velky, however, disputed Bernhardt's characterization about the meeting, telling the news outlet that the tribe retained a different law firm in connection with its acknowledgement efforts. On the other hand, the tribe was aligned with MGM's lawyers in connection with a lawsuit that challenged the new casino.

That lawsuit, along with a separate one pursued by MGM, eventually failed. But as a result of the Trump administration's refusal to approve gaming agreements submitted by the Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes, MGM was able to open a commercial casino in neighboring Massachusetts without facing additional competition.

The tribes, meanwhile, were kept in limbo until the Department of the Interior approved the Mohegan Tribe's agreement in June 2018 -- 10 months after it had been submitted to Washington, D.C. No explanation was provided for the lengthy delay.

The Mashantucket Tribe had to wait even longer. Its gaming procedures weren't approved by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney until last month.

"On March 15, 2019, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney approved amendments proposed by the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Tribe to its class III gaming procedures issued by the Secretary of the Interior in 1991," a spokesperson for the Bureau of Indian Affairs said in a statement to Indianz.Com.

"On March 19, 2019, the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs approved related amendments to the Mashantucket – State of Connecticut Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for class III revenue sharing, along with the underlying MOU that had been in place since 1993," the statement continued. "These actions were the result of an ongoing dialogue between the Department and the Tribe, who have been litigating related issues over the last year."

The Mashantucket Tribe has since withdrawn a lawsuit that sought to force approval of its procedures. The Mohegan Tribe was part of the same lawsuit but withdrew after its agreement was approved last year.

“I applaud the actions of the Department of Interior and extend my sincerest gratitude to Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney and the Office of the Solicitor at the Interior Department for their assistance in resolving this matter," Mashantucket Chairman Rodney Butler said in a statement to Indianz.Com after the latest development.

The end of the lawsuit means the tribes won't be able to get to the bottom of the delay that affected their Tribal Winds Casino. As part of the litigation, they could have sought testimony from Trump administration officials, possibly including Bernhardt.

The tribes also have been in the dark about an investigation that was initiated by the Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior into the matter. There has been no public resolution to the probe and the tribes have not been informed of any conclusions, a year after it began.

According to people familiar with the investigation, leaders of both tribes were interviewed by the Inspector General. Also interviewed was Bernhardt's predecessor, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

Zinke met with leaders of both tribes in June 2017. During that meeting, which took place on the Mohegan Reservation, he said he was going to approve their gaming agreements, according to people familiar with the conversation.

But two months later, the BIA instead told the tribes that it wasn't going to take action for reasons that have not been fully explained. Internal documents subsequently obtained by POLITICO were heavily redacted to the point that it is impossible to discern the legal and policy rationale for such an approach.

Between the June 2017 meeting and the September 2017 letters to the tribes, the only major leadership change that occurred at Interior was the arrival of David Bernhardt as Deputy Secretary in August of that year.

Ryan Zinke's fortunes have since changed dramatically. After his interview with the Inspector General, concerns were raised about his truthfulness regarding the meeting in Connecticut, during which the governor at the time was also present.

Then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, left, is greeted by Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe and then-Chairman Kevin Brown of the Mohegan Tribe, at 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)

A federal grand jury has since looked into the matter, multiple sources in Indian policy circles told Indianz.Com last December as Zinke announced his resignation from the Trump administration. But nothing public has emerged from the purported proceeding, which is said to have taken place in Washington, D.C.

Bernhardt, who was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior last Thursday, is now facing scrutiny of the same kind that dogged Zinke. The Inspector General on Monday told lawmakers and a watchdog group that it had opened an investigation into alleged ethical lapses after receiving seven complaints about him.

"The Inspector General’s investigation into Secretary Bernhardt’s extensive conflicts of interest is a necessary step to ensure that the public interest is paramount in decision-making at the Interior Department," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“Our federal ethics policies and procedures are in place to ensure federal officials are working for the benefit of the American people. It’s important to know that the Inspector General will be looking into whether officials at the Department of the Interior, including the newly confirmed Secretary, may have violated ethics regulations," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota).

The Tribal Winds Casino is expected to open within 18 to 24 months. It is located in the town of East Windsor in Connecticut, less than 15 miles from the MGM facility in neighboring Massachusetts.

Read More on the Story
New records put Trump's interior chief under fresh scrutiny over casino row (The Guardian April 17, 2019)
New Interior Chief Bernhardt Reportedly Held Secret Meeting Linked to One of His Predecessor's Many Scandals (Common Dreams April 17, 2019)
Bernhardt’s office acknowledges meetings left off schedule (Roll Call April 16, 2019)

Federal Register Notices
Indian Gaming; Amendment to Class III Gaming Procedures for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe (March 25, 2019)
Indian Gaming; Tribal-State Class III Gaming Compact Taking Effect in the State of Connecticut (June 1, 2018)

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