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What’s Behind Lobbyist Attempts to Block Casinos on Indigenous Land?

When a lobbyist chisels away at tribal rights, fossil fuel interests inch closer to accessing tribal land.

A water taxi shuttles guests to and from a hotel and the neighboring Wild Horse Pass Casino on the Gila Indian Reservation in Arizona.

President Donald Trump threw his weight against a bipartisan House bill last week that would affirm the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s right to 321 acres of land in Massachusetts.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, or H.R. 312, was introduced by Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.) and co-sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats. Supporters of the act said entitling the 2,600-member tribe to promised, federally recognized land upheld tribal sovereignty and protected the tribe’s economy by enabling the tribe to build a casino on the land.

The House voted in favor of the bill, moving the tribe one step closer to building a $1 billion proposed casino on the land. But the president’s opposition warrants a look into his past links to casino magnates and the gambling industry. The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate.

Trump made known his opposition to the bill in a tweet on May 8, calling it “a special interest casino Bill” and urged Republicans to back out, leading the House to temporarily delay the vote. The president has a long history of challenging tribes’ right to build and operate casinos on reservations.

The chaos that transpired over the legislation exemplified the gaming industries’ complex and costly tug-of-war over casino regulations on tribal land. This is not the first time interest groups, lobbyists or the president have challenged tribes’ protected federal status as sovereign nations to block the construction of competitive casinos.

Significant funding flows into the political fight from all sides. Last year, gambling groups spent a total of $32.53 million, deploying over 300 lobbyists. The Arizona-based Gila River Indian Community led the pack with $2.58 million in spending. Federal lobbying in the gaming industry precipitously increased 112 percent between 2000 and 2018.

Tug-of-War Over Casino Regulations

Federally recognized tribal nations have the right to self-determination and the ability to oversee their own internal affairs on reservations, including the construction of casinos in many states across the U.S.

But gaming facilities on reservations are not immune from federal regulations.

Some tribes must establish compacts, or agreements, with states before building casinos. These states then claim a percentage of the profits from the casinos. The National Indian Gaming Commission, established in 1988, is tasked with monitoring casinos on reservations too.

The ambiguity that can come with federal oversight has often resulted in tension between casinos, Congress and tribal nations over what rules to play by. When it comes to fine-tuning regulations, lobbyists play a significant role.

The Mashpee Wampanoag were among the first Native people to come in contact with colonizers in the seventeenth century. Of the 69 tribes that once composed the Wampanoag Nation, the Mashpee Wampanoag remain one of three surviving tribes today, following decades of colonization and genocide. Despite its over 12,000-year history, the tribe continues to live without a reservation.

The U.S. government did not “re-acknowledge” the Mashpee Wampanoag as a tribe until 2007, well after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Last year, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke determined the Department of Interior would not consider the 150 acres of land in Mashpee and 170 acres of land in Taunton, Massachusetts as the Mashpee Wampanoag’s reservation, reversing an Obama-era decision.

“If a federally recognized tribe does not have land over which to exercise its tribal authority, then what good is the government authority you have?” said Kathryn Rand, dean and professor of law at the University of North Dakota. “You have to have a place to exercise that authority.”

Rand, who also co-founded the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy, said the rescinding of the tribe’s land dealt a blow to their proposed casino and sent the economy into a tailspin.

“The tribe started work on its casino, including seeking financing,” she said, “When the [DOI] Secretary changed his mind, the tribe was left with overwhelming debt.” She estimated the debt at $440 million.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe saw the proposed casino as a key “economic driver.” Casinos can provide needed revenue for public services and other vital infrastructure on reservations, at times accounting for a sizeable portion of a tribe’s revenue.

This is not the first time Congress has stepped in to preserve a tribe’s reservation from being taken away.

In 2015, Gun Lake Tribe underwent a similar struggle. Congress introduced and eventually passed the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act to affirm that the land could be held in federal trust, but not without a grueling fight. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled the decision constitutional in 2018.

Steven Light, co-founder of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy and professor at University of North Dakota, said “it is arguably not the best thing for Congress to be legislating on bills specific to one tribe or another because what that suggests is that sovereignty [can be] compromised and politicized.” Instead, the DOI’s responsibility is to fulfill the federal government’s promises to all tribes, he said.

Lobbyists representing Twin River Worldwide Holdings welcomed the DOI’s decision to un-acknowledge the land previously considered the Mashpee Wampanoag’s reservation. The private company has two casinos — Twin River Casino Hotel and Tiverton Casino Hotel — near the disputed site in Rhode Island. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who co-sponsored H.R. 312, said that Twin River was adverse to the competition from the new casino, according to The Washington Post.

Twin River paid revolving door lobbyist Matt Schlapp, who is the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a devout Trump supporter. The opposition’s ties to Trump go even deeper. The president of Twin River once served as an executive at one of the casinos owned by Trump in Atlantic City too, based on findings published by The Washington Post.

Schlapp leads the lobbying firm Cove Strategies, which Twin River Management Group paid $30,000 in 2019 for lobbying related to the bill. Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, holds a position in the White House as the director of strategic communications.

Twin River Management Group also paid the firm Black Diamond Strategies $30,000. Although there is no record indicating he lobbied on H.R. 312, revolving door lobbyist Rick Wiley is a political consultant with Black Diamond Strategies and played an influential role in Trump’s campaign as the political director during the presidential primaries. Doug Davenport, a former strategist for Trump’s campaign, lobbied on behalf of Black Diamond Strategies as well.

Rep. Keating called out Trump’s “well-documented alliance with the [Rhode Island] casino lobbyist” in a tweet last week.

Tribes also have accelerated their involvement in federal lobbying. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe spent $150,000 on lobbying in this year. Last year, they spent $420,000.

“In the American political system, money talks,” Light said. “Political responsiveness is generated through access and influence, which is linked to fiscal resources and lobbying.”

In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. last month, Mashpee Wampanoag Vice Chairwoman Jessie “Little Doe” Baird said that the loss of the Mashpee Wampanoag’s status had devastated their economic development.

“The damage done to our Tribe during the years in which the status of our reservation has been thrown into doubt is beginning to reach catastrophic levels,” Baird said.

The denial of land rights to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe harkened back to termination policies in the mid-twentieth century when the federal government terminated the status of numerous American Indian tribes and nullified preexisting promises to tribes bound by treaty, said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said on the House floor.

That said, money from casinos is not a panacea for the steep economic hurdles many tribal nations face. Some Native leaders have called for alternate revenue streams given the limitations of the gaming industry.

Nor do all tribal nations have a casino. Of the 567 federally recognized tribes, about 42 percent operate gaming facilities, according to 2016 data from NIGC. That means the majority — 329 tribes — have no casinos.

Not all casinos are created equal either, and profit varies widely depending on location and tribe. Of all the gaming revenue audits obtained by the NIGC in 2017, 57 percent of casinos brought in under $25 million.

Lobbyists Put Political Pressure on the Department of Interior

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is not the only tribe to run into issues with the DOI and lobbyists.

Last year, the Mashantucket Pequots Tribe filed a lawsuit against the DOI and MGM Resorts International alleging that the agency intentionally delayed any decision over a proposed casino. This would be the third casino owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. The Mohegan Tribe, also located in Connecticut, joined the lawsuit.

MGM Resorts International, a company with plans to build a casino in Springfield, Massachusetts, lobbied against the construction of the the Mashantucket Pequots’ proposal, and may have been influential in the DOI’s lack of a clear verdict, according to an investigation of Zinke’s calendar by Politico.

Judge Rudolph Contreras allowed the lawsuit to proceed in February, stating that the “plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that significant political pressure was brought to bear on the issue and the Secretary may have improperly succumbed to such pressure.”

MGM Resorts International spent a record-breaking $1.9 million lobbying on issues related to gambling in 2018, up from $570,000 just two years before. The company paid Ballard $80,000 during the first quarter this year. Last year, he received $320,000.

MGM’s registered lobbyists include Brian Ballard who served as a fundraiser for Trump’s presidential campaign in Florida and later became a member of Trump’s transition team. Filings show MGM Resorts paid Ballard Partners $80,000 in the first quarter this year for lobbying on issues related to gambling on tribal land.

Revolving door lobbyist Gale Norton, who served as Interior Secretary in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 and 2006, lobbied for MGM Resorts International about the “Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Connecticut gaming amendments,” according to lobbying records. She also served as counsel for Shell Oil.

Spending on lobbyists by the Mashantucket Pequots Tribe decreased from $380,000 in 2004 to just $84,000 in 2018.

The motivations behind steady efforts by lobbyists to challenge tribe’s right to hold federal land in trust can extend well beyond the gambling industry. Federally recognized tribal land accounts for about 2 percent of the country’s land, but holds about 20 percent of gas and oil. When a lobbyist successfully chisels away at tribal rights to self-determination over their own affairs, fossil fuel interest groups inch closer to accessing tribal land.

In 2016, Energy Transfer Partners lobbied to extend a $3.8 billion pipeline through sacred land on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, despite widespread resistance from Indigenous organizers.

Trump eventually reversed the Army Corp of Engineers’ decision to halt construction of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, made under the Obama administration. The case is now stuck in the courts.

Trump has a lengthy history with casinos. Trump owned casino ventures, including Trump Castle, Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in the 1980 and ’90s. All ended in bankruptcy but Trump walked away with significant profit.

Currently, the Mashantucket Pequots Tribe owns two casinos, one of which Trump attempted to block in his days as a casino owner. In 1993, Trump challenged the constitutionality of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in court in an attempt to eliminate competition from the the Mashantucket Pequots Tribe’s Foxwoods Resort Casino. Trump sued the federal government, arguing he was being discriminated against.

“I love to compete but I like to compete on an equal footing. I’m competing and paying hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes,” said Trump during a hearing. All the same, a New York Times report later uncovered that Trump claimed $814 million in losses while forking over no money in income taxes.

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