Contributed rendering of Tribal Winds

HARTFORD, CT — A third casino in Connecticut could be open in 18 to 24 months now that the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has officially signed off on amendments to Indian gaming agreements that pave the way for an East Windsor casino.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes sought federal approval for the amendments to their revenue sharing agreements with Connecticut in 2017. Interior officials had tentatively signed off on the tribes’ proposal in the summer of 2017. But the department declined to approve it, prompting a lawsuit from the tribes and the state of Connecticut.

On Thursday the federal department announced that it had signed off on the Mashantucket Pequot amendment. It had previously signed off on the Mohegan Tribal Nation agreement, which preserved the tribe’s revenue sharing and exclusivity agreement with the state of Connecticut.

The decision paves the way for construction to begin on the Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor.

In the meantime, the tribes’ competitor, MGM Resorts International, opened up a new casino in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts in August 2018. It is located just 12 miles from East Windsor.

“Today is a great day for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the state of Connecticut, especially given our 400-year history together,” Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said.

“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 the Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor and preserve much needed jobs and revenue,” Butler said.

Butler has estimated the casino can bring in $70 million for the state.

The Lamont administration was also happy to see that the agreement was preserved.

“We are very pleased that the Interior Department has decided to approve the amendments to Mashantucket Gaming Procedures and Memorandum of Understanding,” Maribel La Luz, spokesperson for Gov. Ned Lamont, said. “Approval of these amendments ensures that any state law authorizing MMCT to operate a commercial casino off of the tribal reservations will do no harm to the state’s existing revenue sharing agreements with the tribes.”

Butler said that Tribal Winds is expected to support 5,000 jobs from the start of construction through the grand opening, with at least 2,000 jobs for the building trades during construction and 2,000 permanent jobs at the facility once it’s operational.

The approval comes two days after the Public Safety Committee passed a bill authorizing an East Windsor casino to be built by the tribes without federal approval, and another that creates a competitive bidding process for a new commercial casino.

The commercial casino bill is the one that MGM Resorts International has been backing for the past several years, with an eye toward building a casino in Bridgeport.

The East Windsor casino was conceived by the tribes to divert gamblers to a destination that’s closer than 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 former U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan 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.

MGM sought to block the petition on the grounds that it would provide the tribes with an unfair economic advantage.

The tribes have questioned whether Zinke was improperly influenced by Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei and then-Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, both of whom received campaign contributions from MGM Resorts International, according to the Washington Post.

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.

Currently Connecticut collects a 25 percent share of slot machine revenue from the Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos under the gaming agreement. The new agreement requires the casino to pay a 25-percent tax to the state on both the slot machines and table games at the new casino.

But the tribes are not out of the woods yet. There is still the threat of a lawsuit from MGM Resorts International.

“The Attorney General’s office has repeatedly warned, as recently as last year, that pursuing a no-bid approach in East Windsor would expose Connecticut to significant legal risks,” Uri Clinton, senior vice president and general counsel for MGM, said. “As MGM has always stated, we will continue to pursue all legal options, including litigation, to defend our right to compete in Connecticut.”

Legislative leaders acknowledged that federal approval was just one step in the process.

“This step in the process is good news for the tribes and movement in the right direction for our state,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said. “I hope that today’s development opens a path to a comprehensive package for Connecticut on the issues of casinos, gambling, and sports betting.”