Pequots try to avoid paying state on 'simulated' slots

You would think the Mashantucket Pequots, while trying to finesse the establishment of a new Connecticut off-reservation commercial casino, would play nice with the state.

After all, the failure by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to sign off on a state–tribal deal for the proposed East Windsor casino appears to be headed to court, and the Pequots will need the state's help in that legal battle.

But no, rather than play nice, the Pequots are locked in a disagreement with state regulators over new "simulated" slot machines they want to install at Foxwoods Resort Casino and run without paying Connecticut its 25 percent share.

The dispute unfolds in correspondence between George Henningsen, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Gaming Commission, and Michelle Seagull, commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection, who, in a letter Nov. 13, suggested the issue may need to be resolved by the National Indian Gaming Commission "or a court."

And if it goes to court, what then?

Will the state attorney general be expected to simultaneously defend its slot revenue sharing agreement with the tribe, in a lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, at the same time it battles the tribe, in a different lawsuit, over the very same revenue sharing deal?

How clueless, or should I say shameless, could tribal leaders be in pursuing these simulated slot machines at this time.

The fight is over some 100 "Live-Call Bingo" machines the tribe installed at Foxwoods in September, planning to turn them on Oct. 1, according to the state.

Before they could be activated, state regulators threw down a red flag, in a Sept. 28 letter, warning that the machines fall under the definition of video facsimile machines governed by the state's gaming compact with the tribe, with 25 percent of the revenues payable to the state.

Furthermore, the state said, the manufacturer needs to register with the state to be licensed.

Henningsen responded with a six-page letter Nov. 2 asserting the machines are "technologic aids to the play of bingo" and not subject to the gaming compact or the revenue sharing agreement for slot machines.

The distinction, he wrote, is the way the machines link players to one another.

"They involve the use of electromechanical formats as a technologic aid to enhance multiple players' participation in the game of bingo," Henningsen wrote. "They are not facsimiles of bingo games that permit a player to play along against a machine."

I am not sure what it's like to play one. But they look exactly like any other slot machine at Foxwoods.

Indeed, the manufacturer, on its own website, admits "Live-Call Bingo" has an "exciting interface" that "simulates" traditional slot machines.

This ploy by the tribe reminds me of the development of the original revenue sharing slots deal made by then Gov. Lowell P. Weicker. At the time, the tribe had opened a table-games-only casino, based on the decision of a federal court establishing state oversight through a compact. The tribe, the court found, was entitled to table games because they were otherwise legal in the state, when run as part of charity fundraisers.

The issue of whether the tribe had the right to slot machines was left to be resolved in court at a later day. The tribe had proposed video machines that looked like slots and would be legal, the tribe said, because they would mimic bingo or the lottery, games already allowed by the state.

The standoff was resolved without a court fight when the tribe proposed paying 25 percent of slot revenues, and Weicker agreed.

To introduce a version of that original argument now seems, at best, disingenuous.

And where does it end? Do 100 machines, not paying the state a share, soon become 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000? Why not keep going, if the manufacturer is right, and they simulate traditional slots?

So far the tribe has not turned on the new faux slots. The state has asked for evidence from the National Indian Gaming Commission that the new machines do not constitute casino Class III gaming, as regulated by the state in Connecticut.

Even if the tribe relents on its claim that it can operate the simulated slots without paying the state, I would suggest it may already be too late to reclaim the state's trust.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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