Amended suit details Interior's reversal on tribal-state agreement

Detailing “the extraordinary political pressure” they say caused U.S. Department of the Interior officials to “buckle,” the state and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe have renewed their bid to compel approval of a tribal-state gaming agreement critical to the East Windsor casino project.

In an amended version of their 2017 lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the state and the tribe say that from April 2016 through the summer of 2017, Interior officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations assured both the Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes that their amended gaming agreements with the state would be approved.

But, they say, after the state legislature passed a bill authorizing the tribes’ East Windsor project and in the face of intense lobbying by MGM Resorts International, Interior officials declined to act on the agreements.

Eventually, Interior did act on the Mohegans’ amended compact with the state but it has not acted on the Mashantuckets’ tribal-state agreement.

“Consistent with the idea that approval was imminent,” the complaint says an official in Interior’s Office of Indian Gaming on Sept. 11, 2017, circulated “draft approval” letters of the amendments.

“However, despite the Department’s repeated affirmations to the (Mashantucket) Tribe that the Tribal-State Agreement would be approved and widespread acknowledgment among the Department’s experts that there was no basis to disapprove the Tribal-State Agreement, the Department ultimately buckled under undue political pressure from both Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) and Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV-02),” the complaint says.

Heller, who lost a re-election bid in November, and Amodei received political contributions from MGM, the Las Vegas-based casino operator that has been allowed to intervene in the suit on the side of Interior. MGM has sought to block the proposed East Windsor casino, which would compete against MGM's nearly $1 billion resort casino in Springfield, Mass. 

“Senator Heller has previously attempted to prevent the Tribes from moving forward with their (East Windsor) project,” the complaint says. “When MGM became aware in 2016 that the Tribe was considering the Tribal-State Agreement, Senator Heller proposed an amendment to a defense bill that would have prevented Indian tribes from operating commercial casinos in the same state where they operate casinos on a reservation. ... The amendment failed.”

The state and the Mashantuckets say Heller pressured then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “to do what was necessary” to stop the East Windsor project during a private dinner at a Las Vegas steakhouse “on or about July 30, 2017.” About the same time, they say, Interior’s associate deputy secretary, James Cason, told the tribes that members of Congress were starting to pressure the Interior Department but that the department had no intention of reversing course.

Amodei summoned Cason to a meeting in his office and pressured Interior to change its position, and Heller called Cason for the same purpose, the complaint says.

“Following that call ... Secretary Zinke visited the White House to meet with Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn who, exerting Executive-level pressure, requested the Department to not approve the Tribal-State Agreement,” it says.

On Sept. 15, 2017, just hours before Interior was set to issue its decision, Heller made another call to Zinke to urge that approval of the agreement be withheld, according to the complaint.

In letters on that date, the department informed the tribes that action on their agreements was “premature and likely unnecessary.”

The state and the Mashantuckets attribute the inaction to “the extraordinary political pressure placed on Department officials principally by Senator Heller and Congressman Amodei,” which “abruptly reversed over 17 months of consistent assurances” that the agreements would be approved.

Following Interior’s inaction, Zinke refused to take calls from the tribes regarding what he dubbed "the MGM matter,” the complaint says.

Zinke resigned in January. His successor, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, is now listed as a defendant in the suit.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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