Lawmakers renew call for probe of Interior's handling of gaming amendments

Nearly two weeks after publishing notice of the Mohegan Tribe's amended gaming agreement with the state, the U.S. Department of the Interior has yet to similarly acknowledge the Mashantucket Pequots' amended agreement.

On Tuesday, Connecticut lawmakers called attention to the disparity.

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Democrats, and U.S. Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, announced that they've renewed their call for an internal investigation of the Interior Department's handling of the amendments, which are crucial to the tribes' pursuit of an East Windsor casino.

The 2017 Connecticut law that authorized the casino required that the tribes' amended agreements be approved by Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. Interior published a notice June 1 that the Mohegan amendment is effective, but has not published anything in regards to the Mashantucket amendment.

"We remain deeply concerned about the propriety of the actions of the Department of the Interior officials as articulated in our February 9, 2018 letter," the Connecticut lawmakers write in a letter released Tuesday. "Further, the timing of the decision by the Department to publish the Mohegan Compact amendment more than six months after federal law required and the failure of the Department to provide similar effect to the Mashantucket Pequot amendment raises additional questions and concerns which the Inspector General should review."

Dated Friday, the letter is addressed to Mary Kendall, the Interior Department's deputy inspector general. A department spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday that the Connecticut delegation's latest letter has been received and that an investigation into the matter is ongoing.

Also Tuesday, MMCT Venture, the tribal partnership formed to pursue the East Windsor casino, released a separate statement from Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman.

"DOI has never treated our agreements with the state any different than the Mohegan Tribe's agreements with the state, and there's no reason they should start doing so now," Butler says in the statement. "We thank the delegation for their work and join their call for the Department to act responsibly and publish the amendment."

Nevertheless, it's not the first time the Interior Department has highlighted differences in the tribes' agreements. When the state and the tribes filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 seeking to compel Interior to act on the amendments, Interior responded with a motion for "partial dismissal," arguing that the Mashantuckets should be dropped from the suit.

Attorneys for Interior claim the Mashantuckets lack standing in the matter because their Foxwoods Resort Casino operates under gaming procedures prescribed by the Interior secretary rather than in accordance with a state-tribal compact, as is the case with the Mohegans' casino, Mohegan Sun.

The state and the tribes contend that the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act when he failed to act on the gaming amendments within 45 days of their submission for approval. The judge in the case, which is pending in Washington, D.C., has yet to rule on Interior's motion, or on MGM Resorts International's request that it be allowed to intervene in the case on Interior's side.

It's not known when any rulings will be issued, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office said Tuesday.

MGM Resorts has sought to block the tribes' East Windsor project, which could divert business from the nearly $1 billion resort casino MGM is close to opening in nearby Springfield, Mass.

In pushing for an investigation of Interior's handling of the tribes' gaming amendments, the Connecticut delegation wrote that "serious questions" have been raised "as to whether the Department of the Interior is properly carrying out its longstanding legal trust responsibilities regarding Native American Tribes."

The lawmakers also cite a Politico report that 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.' "

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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