Tribes see way around federal approval of gaming amendments

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New agreements that could be reached between the state and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes would enable the tribes to move forward with their East Windsor casino project without federal approval, the tribes believe.

The chief legal officers for each of the tribes propose such agreements in a letter to the speaker of the state House of Representatives, Joe Aresimowicz.

In the letter, Helga Woods, the Mohegans’ attorney general, and Elizabeth Conway, the Mashantuckets’ general counsel, take issue with an opinion provided by state Attorney General George Jepsen, who earlier this month wrote that proceeding with the East Windsor casino without federal approval of related gaming amendments would jeopardize the tribes’ revenue-sharing agreements with the state.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s failure to act on the amendments threatens to seriously delay the East Windsor project.

“Where we disagree is the characterization of the risks identified by the Attorney General’s Office ... and whether those risks outweigh the certain injury of delay and waiting for federal action — the risks to Connecticut jobs and revenues,” Woods and Conway wrote in their letter to Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat.

Copies of the letter, dated Thursday, went to other legislative leaders. The General Assembly’s current session ends May 9.

The East Windsor casino is intended to counter the competitive impact of MGM Springfield, a nearly $1 billion resort casino scheduled to open Aug. 24 in Massachusetts, a few miles from the Connecticut border. MGM Springfield is expected to divert business from the tribes’ respective casinos in southeastern Connecticut, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

“As an initial matter, we do not see the risks identified by the Attorney General as significant risks, and we strongly believe that the risks of a state legislative fix this session, without waiting for a court order or change in position from the DOI, can be effectively managed with the State and the Tribes all in agreement,” the tribal officials wrote.

They suggest that separate agreements between the state and each of the tribes (rather than amendments to existing agreements) would ensure that the tribes continue sharing their existing casinos' slot-machine revenues with the state.

“The new agreement would be authorized by State law, would be binding and enforceable in State court, and would be consistent with federal, state and tribal laws; however, the agreement would not require federal approval,” they wrote.

The state and the tribes have sued the Interior Department over its inaction, which they believe stems from the undue political influence of lobbyists working for MGM. At the request of members of Connecticut's congressional delegation, the department's inspector general is investigating.

A bill that would establish a competitive-bidding process for another casino in the state still awaits action in the House. MGM Resorts has pushed for the measure, saying it will propose a Bridgeport casino if the bill becomes law. Further legislation would have to be passed in a subsequent legislative session before another casino could open.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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