Trump administration officials in the Department of the Interior decided to ignore expert advice in a last-minute decision to block the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes from opening a new casino in Connecticut late last year, according to documents obtained by internet media outlet Politico.
While the documents are heavily redacted, they raise serious questions regarding the effect of MGM Resorts International lobbying of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a close Trump confidant, attempting to block Indian casino plans they see as competition to their own $950 million project in near by Springfield, Massachusetts, which is set to open this September.
State lawmakers frustrated
Connecticut lawmakers have asked the Interior Department’s Inspector General (IG) to look into the matter and an internal investigation has been opened.
The state, which intends to approve the project, first needs the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior to amend an existing agreement, in which the state derives 25% of all slots revenues from the tribes two existing casinos, the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.
As the tribes have formed a joint venture to open the third casino in East Windsor to be operated on non-tribal land, this could present a violation of the existing revenue sharing agreement with the state. For the state to be certain the 25% slots revenue sharing agreement will continue to be enforceable, they need the Bureau of Indian Affairs to amend the existing agreements, before they give the green light to the East Windsor casino, which the state legislature has already agreed to do.
Internal emails released after a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Interior have shown that the Department was already circulating draft approval letters, when MGM lobbyists stepped into the picture. 48-hours later their political bosses put a stop to the approval process, refusing to either reject or approve the tribes request, essentially leaving the tribe in legal limbo.
The tribes have since sued secretary Zinke and the Department of Interior in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia, arguing that Zinke has failed to fulfil his responsibilities under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to either approve or reject the request.
State lawmakers frustrated
MGM has stepped in there too, asking to intervene in the case, even though both the tribes and the Department say they have no legal standing to do so.
MGM, which sees the East Windsor casino as direct competition to its Springfield casino, has been pushing hard to have the tribes’ plans scrapped. The Huffington Post has reported that David Bernhardt, Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior, met with Gale Norton, former Interior Secretary under the Bush administration and currently an MGM lobbyist, to specifically discuss MGM’s opposition to the tribes’ plans.
Andrew Doba, a spokesman for MMCT Venture, the joint venture the tribes formed to run the casino, told Politico,
“We are grateful there’s an IG investigation into this issue because since last fall, none of the department’s actions have passed the smell test. Something clearly happened to pollute the process, which should be problematic for an administration that promised to drain the swamp.”
Trump allies give in to political pressure
Emails obtained by Politico show Interior Department staff uncertain about how to explain the sudden flip-flop, as draft approval letters had already been circulated before political pressure from Deputy Secretary Cason forced them to put the plans on hold.
Cason was one of President Donald Trumps first hires and is a veteran of three Republican administrations at the department. Cason’s calendar shows that he met with Ballard Partners, a Trump connected lobbying firm hired by MGM, as early as June last year and that he was in contact with supporters of MGM numerous times, as well as met with Zinke and Trump’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Rick Dearborn at the White House in the run up to the dramatic reversal to put the plans on hold.
Trump too, has had run ins with the tribes in the past, viewing their Foxwoods casino as competition to his Atlantic City casino properties. Trump famously told a congressional committee in 1993, in his typically defamatory way, when arguing against the tribes’ plans “They don’t look like Indians to me.”
As a lobbyist for MGM, Norton would then go on to present Zinke with a 24-page memo laying out agreements on behalf of MGM against the tribes’ plans, citing Trump’s congressional testimony as evidence of why the plans should not be approved.
Both the tribes’ lawsuit and the Inspector General’s investigation are still pending.