Tribes, attorney general differ over who has 'exclusive right' to provide sports betting

If the state legalizes sports betting, would the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have the exclusive right to provide it?

The tribes say they would. State Attorney General George Jepsen has said otherwise.

Highlighting the difference of opinion, the tribes on Monday released copies of letters they sent over the weekend to House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and other legislative leaders in which they state their claim. Hours later, the legislature’s Judiciary Committee approved a bill that lays the groundwork for the legalization of sports betting if and when the U.S. Supreme Court overturns a federal ban on it.

If the high court strikes down the ban, the state would then have to pass a law legalizing sports betting.

In a letter Friday, Helga Woods, the Mohegan Tribe’s attorney general, argues that the state’s authorization of sports wagering by an entity other than the tribes would violate the “exclusivity provisions” of the agreements requiring the tribes to pay the state 25 percent of the slot-machine revenues generated by their casinos.

The Mohegans own Mohegan Sun and the Mashantuckets own Foxwoods Resort Casino.

“While Attorney General Jepsen calls it an ‘open question,’ we believe that sports betting is a ‘commercial casino game’ as that term is used in the (agreement’s) exclusivity provisions,” Woods wrote.

Sports betting is considered a commercial casino game in Nevada, where sports betting has been legal for decades.

If sports betting is otherwise considered "video facsimile gaming," its authorization by the state would violate the exclusivity provisions of the gaming agreements and “relieve the Tribes of any obligation to make payments of slot revenues to the State …” Elizabeth Conway, the Mashantuckets’ general counsel, wrote.

At a press briefing, Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter discounted the idea that the tribes would have the exclusive right to provide sports betting.

“The attorney general and many of us here don’t exactly agree with that,” Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said, adding that the tribes would be included in any discussion of the state’s legalization of sports betting.

“Their argument is a little less credible because when the compact (gaming agreements) was signed, there was no sports gaming in Connecticut. It was never contemplated, the specific words were never used, and here we are 26 years later and they’re raising it for the first time,” said Ritter, a Hartford Democrat. “I’ve heard better legal arguments than that one.”

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee voted 28-5 in favor of a bill directing the commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection to adopt regulations regarding wagering on sports events. The vote sent the measure back to the House of Representatives, which had referred it to the committee last week. In March, the Public Safety and Security Committee approved the bill, 13-12.

A separate bill that originated in the Senate would authorize sports wagering in the state, if allowed by federal law, and would require the Connecticut Lottery Corp. to establish an online lottery program.

The tribes’ weekend letters to Aresimowicz followed one in which they outlined a way the tribes could move forward with development of an East Windsor casino without federal approval, a requirement of the law that authorized the project. Jepsen had “highly recommended” that the federal approval be secured to protect the state’s interests. Aresimowicz said Monday he had yet to review the earlier letter.

In regard to an April 17 communication in which Jepsen weighed in on gaming matters, Aresimowicz issued a statement.

“The Attorney General's latest opinion supports a growing belief that we should probably hit the pause button and focus efforts for this session on figuring out what the best overall gaming strategy is for our state going forward,” he said. “Disparate interests, combined with the lack of action by the BIA (U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs), has us now grappling with a number of complex legal issues that has made taking further definitive action, outside of sports betting, frankly a crapshoot.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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