Judge allows state, tribe to pursue claim against Interior Department

A judge has granted the state and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe “a second bite at the apple,” ruling that they can pursue their claim that the U.S. Department of the Interior succumbed to “improper political influence” when the agency failed to approve the tribe’s amended gaming agreement with the state.

That failure has prevented the Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes from moving ahead with their East Windsor casino project.

In an order filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Judge Rudolph Contreras found that the state and the Mashantuckets also can argue that Interior officials acted inappropriately when they failed to either approve or disapprove the tribe's gaming amendment. The plaintiffs cannot argue, Contreras ruled, that the amendment constitutes a tribal-state compact under federal law.

An amendment to the Mohegans’ gaming agreement, which meets the definition of a tribal-state compact, has been recognized by Interior.

“We are gratified by the court’s decision allowing us to proceed on our legal claims that the federal defendants acted arbitrarily and capriciously in refusing to approve the tribal-state agreement for no legitimate reason and that their decision was the result of undue and improper political influence,” Rion Ramirez, the Mashantuckets’ general counsel, said in a statement. “We are confident that the facts that emerge through discovery and the administrative record will further prove these claims.”

The state and the Mashantuckets have until Friday to file their amended complaint.

Interior and its former secretary, Ryan Zinke, had argued that the court should deny the state and the Mashantuckets’ request to amend their original claim, which sought to compel Zinke to approve the tribes’ amendments. Contreras dismissed the suit and at the same time granted MGM Resorts International’s request to intervene on the side of Interior in the event the claim was revived.

MGM Resorts has tried to derail the East Windsor project, which could threaten MGM Springfield, its nearly $1 billion resort casino in nearby Massachusetts.

The state and the Connecticut tribes have alleged that in the months leading up to Interior’s action — or inaction — on the tribes’ gaming amendments, Zinke had private meetings and conversations with then-U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, and the White House deputy chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, and that both of them pressured Zinke to not approve the amendments.

U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, also a Nevada Republican, similarly pressured Interior’s assistant deputy secretary, James Cason, the state and the tribes alleged.

“… Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that significant political pressure was brought to bear on the issue and the Secretary may have improperly succumbed to such pressure,” Contreras writes in his order. 

A bill in the Connecticut legislature could render the outcome of the case moot.

Introduced by state Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat, and other members of the southeastern Connecticut delegation, the proposed legislation would eliminate the need for the tribes to secure Interior approval of their amended gaming agreements. Opponents of the measure, however, fear such an approach could jeopardize the agreements’ revenue-sharing provisions, which require the tribes to pay 25 percent of their casinos’ slot-machine revenues to the state.

At the request of Connecticut's congressional delegation, Interior launched an internal investigation of the agency's handling of the tribes' amendments.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Editor's Note: This article corrects the spelling of the Mashantucket general counsel’s last name.

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments

TRENDING

PODCASTS