Michigan Tribes Seek Federal Investigation of Trump Interior Department

Posted on: June 29, 2021, 11:48h. 

Last updated on: June 29, 2021, 12:48h.

Three tribes in Michigan are asking the US Interior Department (DOI) to investigate the agency’s actions relating to Native American gambling under the previous administration. 

Michigan casino tribe Little River
Vacant land where a Michigan tribe wants to build a casino resort in Muskegon County. Other tribes, however, oppose the project, and claim politics is behind allowing it to move forward. (Image: WOOD-TV)

Leaders of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, and Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe argue that the DOI’s decisions under President Donald Trump were politically motivated in relation to approving a casino project in Muskegon County. 

Just days before the transition to President Joe Biden taking office, the DOI in December approved allowing the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (LRBOI) to build a $180 million casino resort on vacant land in Muskegon County. The tribe’s sovereign reservation is some 90 miles north, where it currently operates its Little River Casino Resort.

We believe that this [DOI] approval was driven by politics and a cynical attempt to politically harm Governor [Gretchen] Whitmer (D) because she was a fierce critic of President Trump and campaigned aggressively against his reelection in a state critically important to Trump’s re-election campaign,” the letter from the tribal leaders argued. 

The letter, sent to DOI Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt requesting that he launch an investigation, added that Interior’s actions were to “force Gov. Whitmer to make a very difficult decision on a gaming matter that has been historically controversial.”

Decade-long Case

The LRBOI has been trying to build a casino in Muskegon County for more than a decade. The tribe acquired 86.5 acres of land there in 2015. The land was formerly the grounds of the Great Lakes Downs Racetrack. Muskegon County is on Lake Michigan on the western part of the state’s lower peninsula. 

Interior last December ruled that the land qualified to be taken into federal trust and deemed it sovereign Indian territory. Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary of the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, ruled that the tribe indeed has ancestral ties to Muskegon. She added that a gaming establishment there would be in the best interest of the tribe and its members. Additionally, Sweeney decided that a casino on the trust land would not be determinantal to the surrounding community. 

The DOI’s evaluation clears the way for the LRBOI to conduct Class I and II gaming on the land. But for slot machines and table games, it must expand its Class III gaming compact with the state. That’s where Whitmer comes in. 

Little River spokesman Tom Shields rejected allegations that politics were the driving force behind the Interior December outcome.

“Giving the governor an opportunity to create 3,000 jobs with the stroke of her pen is hardly putting her in a difficult position,” Shields said, as reported by The Detroit News. 

The resort proposal includes a gaming floor measuring almost 150,000 square feet, with 1,700 slots and 35 table games. The casino would be accompanied by a 220-room hotel and resort with dining, entertainment, and convention spaces. 

Probe Requested

The three tribal opponents to the Muskegon casino are asking Greenblatt to review whether the Trump administration urged the Interior to sign off on the Little River project.

Specifically, they seek to learn whether “the decision was inappropriately influenced by politics of the federal elections.” 

Whitmer’s office had no comment. The governor has one year from the DOI ruling to decide whether to concur and expand the tribe’s Class III gaming compact.