Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler with Mohegan Tribal President and CEO Ray Pineault (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The issue of where and who should build a new commercial casino in Connecticut was the subject of an all-day public hearing Tuesday.

One bill would “create a competitive bidding process for a resort-casino that would allow the state to choose a development with the most economic impact to the state.”

It’s the bill MGM Resorts International has been backing for the past several years.

The other bill would ignore a law the state already passed that required federal approval to move forward with the Tribal Winds casino in East Windsor. That casino is a joint venture between the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegan Tribal Nation.

The hearing on the two bills came days after the Washington Post reported that former U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to federal investigators about his decision not to grant a the Mohegan and Mashantucket tribes petition to operate the East Windsor casino.

The East Windsor casino was conceived by the tribes to head off traffic to MGM’s Springfield casino.

The new tribal casino, off Indian land, was the subject of intense scrutiny at Interior and the White House during President Donald Trump’s first months in office.

The tribes allege that Zinke decided not to grant their application because of political pressure, and Interior’s Office of Inspector General opened an investigation into the matter a year ago.

Investigators with the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office came to believe Zinke had lied to them in the course of that inquiry and referred the matter to the Justice Department late last year, according to the Washington Post story.

“The stench surrounding Ryan Zinke’s role in this tribal delay is overwhelming, and the fact that a grand jury is now hearing new evidence about Zinke’s role in this is even more reason to pass Senate Bill 11 and get on with the business of creating jobs and growing Connecticut’s economy,” Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who is vice-chair of the Public Safety Committee, said.

“We can’t let one man, who is now being investigated by federal authorities, stand in the way of what was green-lighted a year and a half ago by another Interior Department official. It’s outrageous,” added Osten who is the sponsor of the East Windsor casino bill.

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council Chairman Rodney Butler told the committee, “We don’t need to wait for a federal outcome.” He implored the state to get going on the East Windsor casino which he said will bring in $70 million to state.

He added if the state decides to proceed with the competitive bidding bill “that neither of our tribes will participate.”

The reason? Butler said imagine having an exclusive pact, which the tribes have with Connecticut, with “your wife, your partner and coming home and telling your partner you’re going to play the field a bit.”

“See what your partner says,” Butler told the committee. “It’s going to be expensive.”

Butler said the tribes would be open to discuss other Connecticut locations for casinos, including in Fairfield County, if the exclusivity pact wasn’t broken.

Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, asked Butler whether the state would continue to give the state 25 percent of its slot revenue if the legislature passed the competitive bid bill.

“No,” was Butler’s one word answer.

Another party that is very interested in the competitive bid bill, though, is MGM, which has said it would like to build a casino in Bridgeport.

“Yes, we’re definitely interested in Bridgeport,” Uri Clinton, who oversees New York and Connecticut operations for MGM, said. “We want an opportunity to compete in that market.”

Asked if he was concerned about the thread of commentary during Tuesday’s hearing about a possible link in the Justice Department investigation into the East Windsor casino application, Clinton said he was not.

“The reality is that investigation is not specific to us. We aren’t the approving body,” said Clinton.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes sought federal approval in 2017 to operate a commercial casino off reservation land in East Windsor, in an arrangement that would ensure the operation continue to give 25 percent of its slot revenue to the state of Connecticut.

MGM sought to block the petition on the grounds that it would provide the tribes with an unfair economic advantage. The casino giant has a gambling complex just 12 miles away from East Windsor, in Springfield, Mass., and has eyed opening a casino in Bridgeport.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Rep. Joe Verrengia, co-chairs the Public Safety and Security Committee, which oversees gaming (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

Interior officials had tentatively signed off on the tribes’ proposal in the summer of 2017. But in September the department declined to approve it, prompting a lawsuit by the two tribes and the state of Connecticut. The tribe has questioned whether Zinke was improperly influenced by Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei and then Nevada Sen. Dean Heller both of whom have received contributions from MGM Resorts International, according to the Washington Post story.

In September, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras dismissed the tribe’s initial claim. The Mohegan tribe withdrew from the litigation after Interior acknowledged the validity of its gaming agreement in June 2018.

Attorneys representing the tribes and the state of Connecticut amended their complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The court filing states that Heller called Zinke on Sept. 15, 2017, just hours before Interior issued its final decision, to pressure him not to approve the casino application.

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, told the committee that Connecticut needs to move forward especially “in light of the not kosher behavior that went down in Washington.”

“This is a Connecticut issue, Connecticut jobs and politics in Washington should play no part in this,” Formica added, who represents the area of the state near where the two existing casinos are located.

Formica, Osten and others repeatedly stressed that the tribes have been great partners for the state, handing over $8 billion in slot receipts since they opened.

Currently Connecticut collects 25 percent share of slot revenue from the Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos under the gaming agreement the tribes have with the state.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, also a strong proponent of allowing the tribes’ East Windsor project, said part of her reason is because of the slot agreement.

“A deal’s a deal,” said Somers, who like Formica, has a large constituent base near the two casinos.

But Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said he doesn’t understand why eastern Connecticut should have a monopoly on casinos.

“What about people who live in Bridgeport,” asked Fishbein, who said as Wallingford resident he has “no need to go to East Windsor.”

Also submitting written testimony in favor of the competitive bidding bill was the president of Sacred Heart University.

“SHU supports the idea of a competitive bidding process that allows the state to choose the best developer for the state. We believe the open-bid process will benefit Bridgeport and the surrounding community economically,” said John J. Petillo, president Sacred Heart University

But on the other end of the state there were equally strong voices, such as Michael Urgo, first selectman of North Stonington,who urged support of the competing bill.

“The Mohegan and Mashantucket tribes contribute an incredible amount of money to the local economies throughout the state as a result of the compact they have with Connecticut,” Urgo said.

Urgo added: “Loss of this funding would be devastating statewide and equate to a 2 mil increase for our taxpayers and have a ripple effect on our local economy. I’m very concerned that the impact of allowing MGM an opportunity to install a casino in Bridgeport would decimate our employment levels.”