Swamp politics aids MGM in clash with tribal casinos
So much for draining the swamp. Or respecting state’s rights. Or treating Native American tribes fairly.
Reporting by the news website Politico suggests the Trump administration pulled political strings to protect MGM Resorts International and block plans by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to jointly open and operate a casino in East Windsor.
The East Windsor casino, authorized by the Connecticut General Assembly as a way to compete with the Springfield, Mass. casino MGM plans to soon open, requires approval by the Interior Department, according to the provisions of the state law.
As reported by Politico, Interior was on the brink of authorizing the approval last September, based on staff recommendations from the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Indian Gaming. Citing emails obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act, Politico referenced “draft approval” letters concerning the Mohegan-Mashantucket project that were distributed on Sept. 11 by Troy Woodward, a senior policy adviser in the Office of Indian Gaming.
On Sept. 14, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason met at the White House with Rick Dearborn, the president’s deputy chief of staff for policy. The next day the staff’s approval recommendation was countermanded. Instead, Mike Black, acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, issued essentially a no decision, stating an Interior ruling was “premature and likely unnecessary.”
Had the Trump administration cooked up an approach that disrupted the plans for the East Windsor casino and, in the process, did MGM’s bidding? It sure looks like that.
MGM has lobbied the administration hard. It hired Gale Norton, Interior secretary for George W. Bush, to work the administration. Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, two Republican lawmakers from Nevada, a state where MGM is a major employer, also lobbied Interior officials concerning the Connecticut casino matter. MGM has invested $182,000 in campaign donations to Heller, according to OpenSecrets.org.
At this point, no one should be under any illusions about the hardball MGM is playing to block the East Windsor competition. Its ruse about a Bridgeport casino, another delaying tactic, is part of the game.
A subsequent October meeting that Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt had with Norton may have violated the ethics agreement Bernhardt signed in May 1, 2017, committing him to stay clear of conflicts, reports the Huffington Post. It also appeared to violate President Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting administration officials from involvement in issues for which they had lobbied, within the past two years.
Before taking his current post, Bernhardt had worked for the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck, which has represented MGM in the Connecticut-related casino dispute. MGM is Norton’s only client when it comes to Interior matters. Both Bernhardt and Norton were previously partners at Brownstein Hyatt, and he served as deputy chief of staff when Norton was Interior secretary.
No wonder the local tribes were outmuscled when confronting that many swamp monsters.
Both Bernhardt and Norton told Huffington their meeting was a social visit. Is anyone going to buy that explanation? Certainly not Public Citizen, which has filed an ethic’s complaint about Bernhardt’s behavior.
“The excuse that the meeting was merely a social visit is not very credible, given that it was an official meeting on government time and on government premises. It seems highly likely that the meeting was about MGM,” Craig Holman of Public Citizen told the HuffPost.
The meeting could have well been an opportunity to get their stories straight as to why Interior had rejected its staff recommendation in failing to act on the Connecticut casino matter. Probably not coincidentally, subsequently on Oct. 30 Norton delivered a 24-page memo to Zinke arguing why Interior’s decision was the right one.
Well-documented is Trump’s animosity towards the tribes over the competition their casinos posed for his Atlantic City casino properties. “They don’t look like Indians to me,” he said in a harrumph during a 1993 congressional hearing.
There may be legitimate reasons for challenging the proposed jointly operated casino off tribal land, but the process should be fair. Instead, it looks like a heavy thumb was placed on the scale in MGM’s favor.
Connecticut’s delegation in Washington needs to keep up the heat on the Trump administration, having already successfully pushed for an investigation by the Office of Inspector General, now underway. Meanwhile, the state and the tribes have sued the Interior Department in an effort to force it to act.
Unless forced to break out the pumps, the Trump administration won’t be draining this particular swamp anytime soon.
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