East Windsor Tribal Casino Controversy Ramps Up as Year-Old DOI Secret Meeting Surfaces

Posted on: April 18, 2019, 03:22h. 

Last updated on: April 18, 2019, 03:31h.

Continuing friction over Connecticut’s planned Tribal Winds Casino took a new twist this week with the revelation that Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary David Bernhardt held a private meeting last April with the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s attorney Marc Kasowitz. The latter group had attempted to block the gaming venue from opening.

Donald Trump and David Bernhardt (seen here in February 2019) together when the president nominated his former attorney to be Interior Secretary. Confirmed this month, Bernhardt now faces controversy over a 2018 meeting he took part in, possibly related to a proposed East Windsor casino. (Image: Politico)

Even though the meeting was listed on Bernhardt’s internal records, it was not mentioned in DOI public calendars.

Bernhardt was DOI’s deputy secretary at the time of the meeting with Kasowitz. This month, he was sworn in as secretary following Senate approval.

Kasowitz previously represented President Donald J. Trump in “a wide range of litigation matters for over 15 years,” according to his law firm’s website.

No Reservation

In 2016, the Schaghticoke went to court to stop two competing Connecticut tribes — the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans — from opening the East Windsor venue. The proposed $300 million casino is not on reservation property.

Initially, the DOI was leaning in favor of the casino. But then-DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke delayed the process, choosing not to back an amendment to the Mashantucket Pequots’ compact with the state, though officials had approved the amended compact with the Mohegans.

Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown — who stepped down in February — testified before Connecticut legislators in January that MGM Resorts lobbied heavily against the venue at the “last minute.” MGM’s competing casino in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is only 13 miles away, opened last August.

Connecticut officials wanted the DOI approval to make sure the new gaming venue did not run counter to compacts that give the two tribes exclusive rights to operate slot machines there. The tribes provide 25 percent of the proceeds to state coffers, which this year may total $250 million.

The DOI finally gave the go-ahead for the East Windsor casino in March, but it is still possible that MGM will pursue court action — initiated in 2015 — to block its opening. The gaming operator contends there was no competitive bidding for the project, which will not be situated on sovereign land.

The two tribes say the project is “shovel ready” and will take 18 to 24 months to build. There’s no word yet on an opening date.

Federal Inquiries

In January, Zinke resigned from the DOI as he faced numerous questions about his role in the controversy. He is also the subject of a grand jury investigation which relates to the casino.

Federal prosecutors contend he lied to investigators. The probe also looks at whether Zinke decided not to approve the casino due to outside lobbying. He denies the allegations.

The Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General recently commenced its own investigation into possible conflicts of interest involving Bernhardt. Government watchdogs say the 2018 meeting raises concerns.

The secrecy and inconsistent explanations surrounding this meeting certainly raise questions about the propriety of Mr. Bernhardt’s activities,” Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Campaign for Accountability, told Casino.org.

“If this meeting was above-board and raised no ethical questions, why did Interior fail to disclose it on Mr. Bernhardt’s calendars?  It’s alarming that the participants in the meeting gave inconsistent explanations for what was discussed,” Stevens added.

The DOI also should provide more information “to explain the apparent discrepancies and secrecy” especially given that Zinke “is under investigation for lying about his role in the matter,” Stevens affirmed.

Meeting on Federal Recognition

DOI spokesperson Faith Vander Voort has claimed the meeting between Kasowitz and Bernhardt was not related to the East Windsor casino, but rather dealt with the federal recognition of Schaghticoke tribe. But Schaghticoke Chief Richard Velky himself told The Guardian that the meeting was about a lawsuit in Connecticut involving the East Windsor casino.

Bernhardt — who before working for the Trump administration was an oil industry lobbyist — also met with other lobbyists opposed to the venue, including Gale Norton, who represents MGM Resorts. Vander Voort told The Hill that “the meeting with Norton was purely personal.”

The fact the meeting between Bernhardt and Kasowitz was not included on the calendar was “a technical error,” Vander Voort added.

MGM was a client of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a national law and lobbying firm, where Bernhardt worked before joining the Trump administration, according to HuffPost.