Easterns say they should get share of Mashantucket Pequot-Mohegan Fund

North Stonington — Having fought for more than a decade to recover the federal recognition that slipped through their grasp, the Eastern Pequots are turning their attention to another entity they believe has abandoned them: the state of Connecticut.

In a letter this week to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the tribe's chairwoman, Katherine Sebastian Dring, writes that the tribe has been unfairly excluded from discussions about the distribution of gaming revenue the state receives from the Easterns' federally recognized neighbors, the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

Sebastian Dring points out that while the state annually pays out tens of millions of dollars in gaming revenue to Connecticut's 169 cities and towns, not a penny goes to the Easterns despite their Wright Road reservation's proximity to Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, about 2½ and 12 miles away, respectively.

"The tribe has suffered increased trespassers and traffic on its sacred reservation as visitors to the casino explore the immediate area," Sebastian Dring wrote. "The tribe desperately needs funds to securely maintain its roads and reservation infrastructure. Further, the tribe plans to develop educational tours through a safe and guided tour on its historic reservation for our community and those visiting our state."

Neither the Schaghticokes of Kent nor the Trumbull-based Golden Hill Paugussetts, the other state-recognized tribes that lack federal acknowledgment, receives grants from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund.

The fund — a portion of the slot-machine revenue the Mashantuckets and Mohegans share with the state — provided $58.1 million to municipalities in the 2017 fiscal year that ended last June. A report the state Office of Policy and Management issued in August shows that while the gaming revenue the state receives from the casinos began steadily declining in fiscal 2011, the annual amount distributed to towns through the Mashantucket-Mohegan fund remained largely static at nearly $62 million through fiscal 2016.

Historically, grants from the fund have been based on the value of each municipality's state-owned property, private colleges and general hospitals, population, equalized net grand list and per capita income as well as other factors. The five "host" towns closest to the casinos — Ledyard, Montville, North Stonington, Norwich and Preston — each receive an additional $750,000.

In fiscal 2017, North Stonington qualified for a grant of $841,889, and stands to receive the same amount this fiscal year and slightly more next year. Hartford, which receives the biggest grant, got $6.3 million last year and will again this year, if the state budget holds. The state makes the grant payments in three installments on or before Jan. 1, April 1 and June 30.

None of North Stonington's grant money benefits the Easterns, who have asked for help maintaining Wright Road and with snow removal, according to Sebastian Dring. The town, which maintains town-owned portions of Wright Road, has turned down the tribe's requests, she said.

"We did get a little assistance from the Mashantuckets when they were regraveling some of their roads," Sebastian Dring said.

Sebastian Dring called the state’s failure to provide a share of the Mashantucket-Mohegan Fund to the Easterns an “omission” and an example of the state’s general disregard for the tribe.

In a February letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Easterns objected to a Connecticut congressional delegation’s call for an investigation into the Department of the Interior’s failure to act on amendments to the state’s gaming agreements with the Mashantuckets and Mohegans. The inaction has stymied the two tribes’ plan to develop the state’s third casino in East Windsor.

The Easterns believe the state’s involvement in that matter sharply contrasts with its long-running opposition to the Easterns’ bid for federal recognition. Such acknowledgment can entitle a tribe to aid for economic development, educational services, health care and housing.

In 2002, Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized the Historical Eastern Pequot Tribe, combining two tribal factions — the Eastern Pequot Indians and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Indians. The state joined the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston in challenging the decision, prompting the Interior Board of Indian Appeals to reverse it in 2005.

The tribe has petitioned Interior to restore its recognition.

Sebastian Dring, in the Easterns' letter to Malloy, wrote that the state's opposition to the tribe's federal acknowledgment "is a breach of its fiduciary duties and those delineated in Connecticut General Statutes ... and is discriminatory, constituting bias per se."

“We have two battles going on here, one with the state of Connecticut and one with the federal government,” she said. "We’re trying to cover all our bases.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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