A casino drama with some familiar players

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It’s a southern New England casino tale involving Native Americans, the U.S. Department of the Interior, lawmakers, the courts and commercial gaming interests.

Sound familiar?

Here’s the shocker: It has little to do with either the Mashantucket Pequot or Mohegan tribes and nothing to do with their nemesis, MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based giant whose nearly $1 billion Springfield, Mass., casino figures to threaten Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

No, this saga’s playing out in the Bay State, where a casino operator has petitioned the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to reconsider its plan for a $700 million casino in Brockton. It's been more than two years since the commission, concerned about the specter of an oversaturated gaming landscape, rejected the project. And it's been nearly that long since a federal district court judge called into question the Interior Department’s 2015 decision to take land into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, including 151 acres in Taunton where the tribe subsequently started — and stopped — building a $1 billion casino.

In a letter last month, the operator, Mass Gaming & Entertainment, claims the commission’s inaction has cost the southeastern part of the state, so-called “Region C,” thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue.

MG&E and its principal owner, Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming, say they’re ready to help the region claim a share of a market that otherwise could be absorbed by the Twin River casino scheduled to open Sept. 1 in nearby Tiverton, R.I.

“MGM’s casino in Springfield will open later this year (Aug. 24), the Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett (Mass.) is scheduled to open next June and the two tribal casinos in nearby Connecticut continue to grow,” MG&E writes in its filing with the commission.

The commission is scheduled to take up MG&E's petition Thursday during a public meeting.

The Mashpees, meanwhile, have sought to recover from the court ruling that cited a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting the Interior Department’s authority to acquire land for tribes that gained federal recognition after 1934. Despite their long history, the Mashpees weren’t officially recognized until 2007.

Earlier this year, with the Mashpees' appeal of the district court ruling pending, U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., whose district includes the southeastern part of the state, authored a bill that would “reaffirm” Interior’s acquisition of land for the tribe. Massachusetts’ senators, Democrats Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, introduced a Senate version of the measure.

On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs held a hearing on the bill, with both Chairman Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican, and ranking member Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat, voicing support for it.

Darryl LaCounte, acting deputy director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, testified that he was not prepared to take a position on the bill.

Opponents of the bill include Brockton’s mayor, William Carpenter, who submitted testimony in which he called the proposal “an affront to the rule of law, process and the citizens of southern Massachusetts. ... This special interest legislation is bad policy, plain and simple.”

The East Taunton residents named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the overturning of the Interior decision to acquire land for the Mashpees also filed testimony. David and Michelle Littlefield, who said they were not given the opportunity to testify in person, refer to the legislation as the “Genting Bail-Out bill,” a reference to the Genting Group, the Malaysia-based backers of the Mashpees’ First Light Resort & Casino project.

While First Light opponents say Genting has funded lobbyists seeking to win support for the bill, the Mashpees note that MG&E lent financial support to the residents’ lawsuit.

Cedric Cromwell, the Mashpee chairman, testified that the Keating bill was of “vital importance” to his 2,877-member tribe, whose ancestors, Cromwell said, welcomed the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. The tribe fears, he said, that unless the bill becomes law, Interior “will move to take our land out of trust and disestablish our reservation ...”

In addition to the 151 acres in Taunton, the tribe’s federal lands include another 170 acres in the town of Mashpee.

Back in April 2016, Cromwell posed at the controls of an excavator during groundbreaking for the Taunton casino. At that point, the Mashpees had a reasonable hope that they'd open Massachusetts' first full-blown casino. On hand that day was Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket Pequot chairman, who has had some more recent experience with ceremonial site work.

In March, the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans celebrated the demolition of a vacant Showcase Cinemas building on the East Windsor site where they hope to build Connecticut’s third casino as a hedge against MGM Springfield's impact. The building’s gone but no construction has begun.

It's been held up by Interior's failure to grant an approval, which is the subject of a federal lawsuit.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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