MGM Resorts Files Suit Against US Interior Dept. Over Connecticut Tribal Casino Approval

Posted on: August 8, 2019, 01:00h. 

Last updated on: August 7, 2019, 02:26h.

MGM Resorts has filed a federal lawsuit in DC against the US Interior Department on grounds that the agency wrongfully approved of a tribal casino project in Connecticut on non-sovereign land.

MGM Resorts Connecticut casino lawsuit
MGM Resorts is suing the Interior Department and Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney for her approval of revised gaming compacts in Connecticut. (Image: Indian Country Today)

The complaint challenges the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) decision to sign-off on Connecticut’s modified gaming compacts with its two tribes – the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Indians. In June of 2017, the state authorized the Native American groups to jointly construct a satellite casino in East Windsor, a short 13 miles from MGM’s $960 million casino in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Interior’s approval decisions are unexplained, unprecedented, and unlawful,” the lawsuit declares.

It continues, “These amendments have the stated purpose of facilitating off-reservation, commercial gaming operated by a joint venture wholly owned by Indian tribes. These amendments therefore circumvent IGRA’s (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) land-in-trust process, which governs off-reservation gaming, and allow Connecticut’s federally-recognized Indian tribes to leverage their duopoly over tribal gaming to obtain a monopoly over commercial gaming in Connecticut.”

The MGM lawsuit names Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, DOI Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney, and Indian Affairs Principal Deputy Assistant John Tahsuda as defendants.

Legal Juggernaut

Connecticut’s casino bill granting the tribes joint authorization to build a satellite in East Windsor came on the condition that the DOI approved of the revised gaming compacts. The longstanding legal agreements require 25 percent of slot machine revenues at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun be shared with the state government.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to formally accept the amendments for more than a year, something Connecticut lawmakers argued was because MGM lobbied the federal official to abstain.

Following Zinke’s departure from the Interior in late 2018, Sweeney said in March that the revisions were accepted and federally endorsed. That paved the way for the tribes to finally move forward with its satellite, named Tribal Winds.

MGM asserts that the state unlawfully handed its tribal groups a monopoly on commercial gaming.

“The amendments are unprecedented. No other tribe has ever used IGRA’s amendment procedure to authorize the operation of a commercial, off-reservation casino. No state has ever implemented a hybrid commercial-tribal gaming scheme similar to Connecticut’s,” the lawsuit contends.

Bridgeport Dilemma

MGM Resorts says it’s still interested in building a $675 million resort in Bridgeport.

The lawsuit explains, “MGM studied the Connecticut gaming market and determined that a Connecticut-based casino would be commercially desirable.”

Many state lawmakers and Gov. Ned Lamont (D) support authorizing a casino in the fiscally troubled seaport city. A recent pitch from the governor to the tribes would allow them to receive approval to build in Bridgeport, but only if they fold on East Windsor – something the Native Americans say they aren’t willing to do.

MGM says the state would get its best deal possible through a competitive bidding process, instead of simply giving the tribes more gaming control.

“The amendments are not limited to an East Windsor casino: they facilitate commercial, off-reservation gaming by the tribal joint venture anywhere in Connecticut, and state legislators have recently proposed granting the joint venture an exclusive, no-bid license to operate a casino in Bridgeport. The amendments thus confer a statewide, perpetual competitive advantage on the joint venture,” the complaint says.

MGM is asking the DC court to declare the DOI’s actions invalid.