Connecticut lawmakers call for probe of Interior's handling of gaming amendments

Connecticut’s U.S. senators and two of its congressmen are calling for an investigation into the U.S. Department of the Interior’s failure to act on amendments to the state’s gaming agreements with the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

In a letter to the top official in the department’s Office of Inspector General, the Connecticut lawmakers say events surrounding Interior’s inaction “may suggest the department abrogated its duty to properly carry out its legal trust responsibilities regarding the two tribes.”

The correspondence, dated Friday, is signed by Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and John Larson, D-1st District.

State officials approved the amendments last year after enacting a law authorizing the tribes to jointly develop a casino on nontribal land in East Windsor. The law requires federal approval of the amendments before the tribes can proceed with the $300 million project. The state and the tribes have sued Interior and Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary, to compel them to act on the amendments.

The Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes welcomed the lawmakers’ call for an investigation.

“We want to thank Senators Blumenthal and Murphy and Representatives Courtney and Larson for taking this step today,” Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes, said. “Their letter raises serious questions about how the Department of the Interior handled our request and their subsequent refusal to follow the law.”

The letter “follows reporting that raises serious concern about the role of money and lobbyists into Interior’s decision-making,” the lawmakers said Monday in a statement announcing their call for a probe.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Inspector General, headed by Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, confirmed that the office had received the letter and was reviewing it.

In the letter, the lawmakers cite a Feb. 1 article in Politico, “Zinke’s agency held up Indians’ casino after MGM lobbying,” which details Nevada lawmakers’ efforts on behalf of MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based gaming operator that’s building a nearly $1 billion resort casino in Springfield, Mass., about 12 miles from the site of the proposed East Windsor casino. MGM Resorts has long sought to block the East Windsor project.

MGM Springfield, scheduled to open in September, poses a threat to the tribes' respective southeastern Connecticut casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

“The Nevada-based MGM has a direct economic interest regarding Interior’s decision on the proposed amendments, as the casino that is the subject of the amendment could potentially compete with its newly constructed casino on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border,” the lawmakers say in their letter. “However, MGM has no connection to the legal trust responsibility Interior has to the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes. As such, the company’s activities should have had no bearing on the question before the Department or on its decision regarding the proposed amendments.

“Specifically,” the letter continues, “the Politico article raised issues of potential conflicts of interest and impartial decision making, noting that the Secretary refused to even talk with members of the Connecticut delegation about these Connecticut-specific amendments while ‘MGM and its allies had direct access to Interior.’” 

An Interior official, Michael Black, outlined his department's unwillingness to act on the tribes’ gaming amendments in letters last September to each of the tribes' chairmen — the Mohegans’ Kevin Brown and Rodney Butler of the Mashantuckets.

“The Amendment addresses the exclusivity provisions of the Gaming Compact,” Black, acting assistant secretary of Indian affairs, wrote in the September letters. “We find that there is insufficient information upon which to make a decision as to whether a new casino operated by (the tribes) would or would not violate the exclusivity clauses of the Gaming Compact. The Tribes have entered an agreement with the State whereby they have agreed that the exclusivity provisions will not be breached by this arrangement. Therefore, our action is unnecessary at this time.”

The letters were copied to two Nevada lawmakers — U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, both Republicans. No Connecticut legislators were copied.

At the time, Blumenthal, Connecticut's senior senator, said members of the Connecticut delegation had been frustrated in their attempts to meet with Interior officials. In its article this month, Politico reported that Interior refused to endorse the gaming amendments after Zinke and other Interior officials “held numerous meetings and phone calls with MGM lobbyists and the company’s Republican supporters in Congress ...”

Politico based the assertion on “a Politico review of Zinke's schedule, lobbying registrations and other documents,” the article said.

“Moreover, Secretary Zinke and Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason were scheduled to meet with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn the day prior to the issuance of the Black letter,” the Connecticut lawmakers write in their letter. “These actions suggest that something other than the legal obligations to Indian Tribes was motivating the decision of the Department of the Interior.”

The entire report can be read at: https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Interior%20-%20OIG%20letter%20MGM%20Tribes.pdf

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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