The Interior Department has signed off on a tribal casino project in Connecticut, abruptly reversing a previous decision that is the focus of an ongoing investigation into possible criminal violations by ousted former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
In 2017, Interior blocked a proposed casino partnership between two Connecticut tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan. Casino resort giant MGM Resorts International lobbied against federal approval of the project, seeing it as competition to its casino in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts. The operation required the approval of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The two tribes sued the agency, arguing that Zinke’s refusal to sign off on the request was due to “improper political influence.” Interior’s internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, opened an investigation into the matter last year and later referred the probe to the Justice Department, as The Washington Post reported.
As of February, a grand jury was reviewing evidence from prosecutors in order to determine whether Zinke lied to federal investigators about the agency’s initial decision, according to the Post. Zinke has denied any wrongdoing.
Tara Sweeney, the assistant secretary of Indian affairs, offered little explanation for the change of course in a notice posted Thursday, except to say that the agency had “further consultations with the Tribe.”
Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said Thursday was “a great day” for the tribe and the state.
“Now that the approval of our Amendment is secured and our exclusivity agreement with the State of Connecticut is reaffirmed, we will move forward with construction on Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor and preserve much needed jobs and revenue,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, MGM has promised to continue its legal battle. It argues that it was unconstitutional for the state to approve an off-reservation casino without a competitive bid, The Connecticut Mirror reports.
Four members of the Connecticut delegation ― Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Reps. John Larson and Joe Courtney ― applauded the decision in a joint statement Thursday, calling it “welcome news, albeit long overdue.”
“The Department had failed to approve these amendments to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe Gaming Procedures for nearly two years — long since staff at the Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended an approval,” they said. “This unnecessary and unethical delay has prompted a grand jury investigation, which remains ongoing, and an inspector general review of the department’s actions. We look forward to their findings.”
David Bernhardt, the acting Interior chief and the nominee to replace Zinke, met on several occasions with lobbyists for MGM, which was also a client of the lobbying firm where Bernhardt worked before his tenure in the administration, as HuffPost previously reported. The ethics agreement he signed last year bars him from participating in matters involving his former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. One lobbyist, who was hired by MGM specifically to lobby against the tribal casino, insisted that their meeting was a “social visit,” as HuffPost reported.