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October 11, 2019

Feds seek dismissal of MGM lawsuit over East Windsor casino

Rendering | MMCT A rendering of the proposed Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is urging a federal court to throw out a lawsuit from MGM Resorts, which if approved would pave the way for Connecticut’s two Indian tribes to open their casino in East Windsor.

MGM filed its lawsuit in August in an attempt to overturn the Interior Department’s approval of amendments to gaming agreements between Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

MGM argued the approvals violate the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and give the tribes a monopoly by preventing competition for casino operations off tribal lands.

In a motion to dismiss that was filed Monday, the Interior Department asserts the approvals were “entirely consistent” with the gaming regulatory act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

While gaming act typically mandates that casino table games apply to Indian reservations, the Interior Department determined the amendments could be approved under the gaming act because they would not affect the tribes’ operations of table games on their reservations.

Furthermore, the Interior Department argued, the approved amendments do not authorize commercial gaming in Connecticut, but merely confirm that the operation of a state-sanctioned commercial facility by the joint tribal venture MMCT does not violate the exclusivity provision of the tribes’ respective memorandums of understanding with the state.

Although the Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor would be operated off a reservation, the gaming regulatory act “neither precludes such enterprise nor imposes any requirements on it” because the facility still would be subject to all state, local, and federal laws.

“Interior’s role with respect to gaming extends to tribal gaming under (the gaming regulatory act), not state-sanctioned commercial gaming conducted under state or federal law, even if that gaming happens to involve Indian tribes,” the Interior Department’s motion states, adding that the amendments confirmed that sanctioned gaming would remain unaffected by the East Windsor facility.

The state’s compacts with the tribes give them exclusive rights to certain kinds of gambling in exchange for 25 percent of slot machine revenue. While those agreements continue to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, the revenue has been steadily dropping since 2007, when the state brought in $430.5 million.

Early expectations were that Tribal Winds could provide as much as $70 million annually to the state.

Gov. Ned Lamont said Wednesday that he’s “trying to do everything I can to get a global solution” to the state’s gambling policy, including moving forward with sports betting.

“I want Connecticut to be a big part of that. Like it or not, it’s a reality,” he said. “It’s too big an opportunity to leave on the sidelines.”

Lamont said he still intends to have Bridgeport be a part of gambling expansion in the state and added that tribal leaders have told him they intend to get started on construction in East Windsor sometime this winter.

Tribal leaders already have spent millions of dollars on the $300 million East Windsor project, including purchasing and clearing the property, securing state and local approvals, and signing a project labor agreement.

The tribes have formed the MMCT alliance in an effort to combat any potential job or revenue loss to MGM, which operates a casino just over the state line in Springfield. Tribal Winds is seen as a way to capture some of the gamblers headed north.

If it comes to fruition, the East Windsor facility would be a boon for the region.

East Windsor would receive $5.5 million in each of the first five years in property taxes, potentially more after the facility is built, as well as $3 million per year for public safety, education, and traffic expenses.

East Hartford, Ellington, Enfield, South Windsor, Windsor Locks, and Hartford are slated to each receive $750,000 annually from the tribes as compensation for impacts to those communities.

The casino is expected to create 2,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs.

Tribal leaders and Connecticut legislators have said they believe MGM lobbyists in Washington, D.C., influenced the Interior Department’s timing in approving the amendments.

The Interior Department’s inspector general’s office initiated an investigation into former Secretary Ryan Zinke’s delay, eventually referring the issue to the Justice Department with the belief that Zinke had lied to investigators regarding his decisions about the East Windsor casino.

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