Indian Time - A Voice from the Eastern Door

US Dept. of Interior held up Connecticut Tribe's Casino Approval After MGM Lobbying


Two casino-owning American Indian tribes are accusing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of illegally blocking their plans to expand operations in Connecticut - a delay that stands to benefit politically connected gambling giant MGM Resorts International.

The Interior Department’s refusal to sign off on the tribes’ plans for a third Connecticut casino came after Zinke and other senior department officials held numerous meetings and phone calls with MGM lobbyists and the company’s Republican supporters in Congress, according to a POLITICO review of Zinke’s schedule, lobbying registrations and other documents. The documents don’t indicate whether they discussed the tribes’ casino project.

Federal law gives Interior just 45 days to issue a yes-or-no verdict after a tribe submits proposed changes to its gaming compact with a state, as the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes note in a suit they filed against Zinke and the department. But the department declined to make any decision in this case, an inaction that raises questions about whether an intensive lobbying campaign by one of the gambling industry’s biggest players muscled aside the interests of both the tribes and the state of Connecticut.

Meanwhile, MGM and its allies had direct access to Interior. Zinke had multiple conversations last year with Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei — two Nevada Republicans whose state is a major center of employment for MGM, and who have each tried to impede the tribes’ casino plans. The company also doubled its lobbying spending and assembled a team that includes Bush-era Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Florida-based Trump fundraiser Brian Ballard.

The proposed Connecticut casino would sit on non-tribal land just across the border from a billion-dollar casino that MGM is planning in Springfield, Mass. The Pequot tribe’s Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut has previously provoked the ire of former New Jersey casino owner Donald Trump, who complained during a 1993 congressional hearing that “they don’t look like Indians to me.”

As gambling spread across the U.S. in recent decades, MGM and other casino developers - including Trump - pursued projects in Connecticut but were ultimately unsuccessful. State law there limits casino ownership to the two in-state tribes and their new joint venture.


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