Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Resigns, Connecticut Tribes Could Benefit

Posted on: December 17, 2018, 07:56h. 

Last updated on: December 17, 2018, 08:43h.

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke gave his resignation to President Donald Trump over the weekend, and that’s welcomed news to Connecticut’s two tribes that are jointly working to build a satellite casino in East Windsor.

Ryan Zinke interior secretary DOI
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is leaving Washington after a controversial tenure. (Image: Win McNamee/Getty)

Zinke, who’s been the head of the US Department of the Interior (DOI) since March 2017, is stepping down amid a Department of Justice investigation into his political actions and business dealings. The former Navy SEAL has been accused of numerous ethics violations.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes allege that Zinke was heavily lobbied by MGM Resorts and persuaded to avoid determining whether the Native American groups can build a casino on non-sovereign land. Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill granting them such privilege, but the legislation required DOI approval.

Zinke never issued a formal opinion on the state’s amended gaming compacts with the two tribes. That effectively blocked the East Windsor casino project from moving forward.

Forced Hand

The White House reportedly gave Zinke to the end of the year to resign or be fired. But President Donald Trump still gave his praise to the interior secretary.

Secretary of the Interior will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years,” Trump tweeted. “Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation.”

The president said he would nominate Zinke’s successor this week. The Connecticut tribes disagree with Trump’s assessment of Zinke’s performance.

In a lawsuit filed against the DOI, the state and tribes contend that Zinke stopped a planned approval of the gaming compacts after meeting with lobbyists from MGM Resorts. The commercial casino operator opened its $960 million resort in Springfield, Massachusetts, in August, and wants to keep other casinos away.

Springfield and East Windsor are just 13 miles apart across the Massachusetts-Connecticut border. In October, a federal judge ruled that Zinke had no obligation to review the compact amendments under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Heller Candidacy

Connecticut lawmakers are working on a new bill that removes the DOI mandate to allow the East Windsor casino to move forward. The goal is to keep gaming dollars from flowing out of the state to MGM Springfield.

Depending on who becomes the next interior secretary, the Connecticut tribes could have better luck in finally having the satellite signed off on. However, one supposed candidate wouldn’t likely do the tribes any favors on the matter.

Outgoing US Senator Dean Heller (R-Nevada) is reportedly interested in the job. But he’s one of the individuals the Connecticut tribes say pressured Zinke not to weigh in on the gaming compacts.

Politico wrote in February that Zinke and other senior DOI officials “held numerous meetings and phone calls with MGM lobbyists and the company’s Republican supporters in Congress.”

“It’s 100 percent about delaying us for as long as they possibly can,” Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes said.