New revelations have tribes looking to Interior probe

Amid new revelations about the federal government’s handling of their amended gaming agreements with the state, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes are banking on an investigation launched at the request of Connecticut’s congressional delegation.

Reports that first appeared late last week on the websites of the news outlets Politico and HuffPost raise questions about the role Trump administration officials played in the Department of the Interior’s failure to act on the amendments — a move that could hold up the tribes’ development of an East Windsor casino.

Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, requested the investigation in mid-February, citing an earlier Politico report that detailed MGM Resorts International’s efforts to persuade Interior officials to avoid acting on the tribes’ amendments. MGM Resorts, the Las Vegas-based gaming operator building a nearly $1 billion resort casino in Springfield, Mass., enlisted the aid of Nevada lawmakers in lobbying Interior, Politico reported.

Interior’s Office of the Inspector General is “working diligently” on the probe, a spokeswoman for the office said Monday.

Politico, citing documents it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reported Friday that Trump administration officials rejected the input of Interior staff who recommended the tribes’ gaming agreements be approved.

“The documents … show that the career staffers were circulating what they labeled ‘approval’ letters just 48 hours before their political bosses reversed course and refused to either OK or reject the tribes’ application …,” the Politico report says.

Politico and HuffPost both reported that MGM Resorts has relied heavily on lobbyists, including former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and firms with ties to the Trump administration.

In the wake of the reports, Andrew Doba, a spokesman for MMCT Venture, the Mashantucket-Mohegan partnership formed to pursue the East Windsor casino, issued a statement Monday.

“We are grateful there's an IG (inspector general) investigation into this issue because since last fall, none of the department's actions have passed the smell test,” Doba said. “Something clearly happened to pollute the process, which should be problematic for an administration that promised to drain the swamp."

A spokesman for MGM Resorts said Monday the company had no comment on the Politico and HuffPost reports.

The tribes and the state of Connecticut have filed a federal lawsuit against Interior and its secretary, Ryan Zinke, over Interior's failure to act on the gaming amendments. The suit is pending. 

As Politico noted, President Donald Trump has been at odds with Indian tribes in the past, including the Mashantuckets, with whom he competed for a Connecticut casino license that was never awarded in the 1990s.

During his run for the presidency, the Mashantuckets publicly criticized Trump, calling his campaign tactics and behavior “bigoted and ignorant.” Trump’s appearance at a 1993 congressional hearing at which he questioned the Mashantuckets’ authenticity aired repeatedly.

“They don’t look like Indians to me,” Trump said at the hearing.

In 1997, Trump, then heavily invested in the casino industry in Atlantic City, signed a contract with the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, agreeing to bankroll the tribe’s efforts to gain federal recognition and open a tribal casino. In exchange, Trump was to receive a percentage of the casino’s net revenue.

Five years later, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized the Paucatucks and a separate tribal group, the Eastern Pequots, as a single tribe, which decided to go with different backers and severed ties with Trump. He then brought a lawsuit that was settled in 2007.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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