Tribes urge federal response that would pave way for East Windsor casino

Having met last week with U.S. Department of the Interior officials, lawyers for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes sent a letter Tuesday urging the department to publish notice that amendments to the tribes’ gaming compacts with the state have been “deemed approved,” action seen as requisite to the tribes' development of an East Windsor casino.

“We urge the Secretary to perform his ministerial statutory and regulatory duty to publish notice of approval in the Federal Register,” the lawyers write in their letter to James Cason, the Interior Department’s associate deputy secretary.

In the letter, the lawyers thank Cason for meeting with them last Thursday “to discuss our request, in which the State of Connecticut joined.”

The meeting stemmed from controversy surrounding an Interior Department official’s Sept. 15 response to amended state-tribal gaming agreements the tribes submitted for approval in August. The official, Michael Black, acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, wrote that department action “is premature and likely unnecessary.”

While the tribes regarded the response as tantamount to approval, or “deemed approved,” the leading opponent of the tribes’ East Windsor project, MGM Resorts International, has claimed otherwise. MGM Resorts is building a nearly $1 billion resort casino in Springfield, Mass., 15 miles north of East Windsor.

The lawyers’ letter Tuesday says that under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Interior secretary “has only two options once a compact (or a compact amendment) has been submitted for review — he must either affirmatively approve or affirmatively disapprove within 45 days of receipt ... if the Secretary neither approves nor disapproves a compact, it is deemed approved ...”

“Returning the Amendments submitted for approval is not one of the options available to the Secretary under IGRA ...,” the letter says.

The lawyers who signed the letter are George Skibine and V. Heather Sibbison of Dentons, a Washington, D.C., firm representing the Mohegans; and Rob Gips and Kaighn Smith Jr. of DrummondWoodsum, a Portland, Maine, firm representing the Mashantuckets. Earlier this year, Skibine, who spent decades working for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, testified on behalf of the tribes at a legislative hearing.

Regarding their meeting with Cason, the lawyers write that he suggested they “provide a legal analysis of why such a notice must be published and address a concern Secretary (Ryan) Zinke raised with you regarding whether he has the legal authority to approve the Amendments.”

IGRA requires that notice of approvals be published in the Federal Register, the daily journal of the U.S. government, within 90 days of receipt. That deadline was thought to be Tuesday — 90 days since Aug. 2, the date Interior received the tribes’ amendments.

The lawyers say the legislation authorizing the tribes to operate a state-regulated casino on nonreservation land does not interfere with existing agreements related to Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, both of which turn over to the state 25 percent of their slot-machine revenue. In exchange, the tribes have the exclusive right to offer casino gaming in Connecticut.

The third-casino bill that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into law in June specified that authorization for the East Windsor casino was contingent on the amended gaming agreements being approved or deemed approved by the Interior secretary. The tribes have said they were consistently led to believe that approval would be forthcoming.

“It was only on September 14th that representatives of the tribes were informed the Department had inexplicably changed course and no longer planned to issue an approval,” the lawyers say.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Editor's Note: Passages in the document below were highlighted prior to its submission to The Day.

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