Facing a criminal investigation about political interference, the Department of Interior abruptly reversed course Thursday and announced it has accepted a gambling amendment necessary for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to jointly construct a casino in East Windsor to compete with MGM Springfield.
The terse notice posted on its website at 11:15 a.m. gives no rationale for the reversal, saying that after “further consultations with the Tribe,” assistant secretary for Indian Affairs signed off on the document on March 15 and that it would become effective after its publication Monday in the Federal Register.
The notice removes the a key obstacle to the construction of Connecticut’s first casino off tribal lands, but it invites the revival of a legal challenge by MGM Resorts International of the state’s authorization of the East Windsor casino without competition. MGM’s original lawsuit was dismissed as premature.
The state’s authorization of the East Windsor casino in 2017 was contingent on Interior’s accepting amendments to the tribes’ agreements with Connecticut, a guarantee that the project would not violate an existing deal under which the tribes’ pay 25 percent of the slots revenue from their casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
But the Interior Department, after lobbying by MGM of then-Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Trump White House, declined to act on the amendments. That prompted a lawsuit by the tribes and state and a congressional request for the inspector general to investigate the department’s role in blocking the casino in East Windsor.
The Interior Department partially relented in May, accepting an amendment to Mohegan’s gaming compact with Connecticut. But Zinke refused to act on the Mashantucket Pequot amendment, saying it was unnecessary due to technicalities relating to how Connecticut’s original compact with them was struck.
But, as officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Interior well knew that would block construction, as it was necessary under the 2017 state law.
The previous suit by MGM, which was filed before passage of the authorization bill in 2017, claimed that the state could not exclusively deal with the tribes on a commercial casino license without violating the Equal Protection and Commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution. It was dismissed as premature.