US Interior Department Launches East Windsor Casino Probe

Interior Department AG Probe Ryan Zinke

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Navy Seal Commander, has been called “Trump’s Cowboy Enforcer”.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Inspector General is investigating the department decision to take no action on changes to the gaming compact between the state of Connecticut and the state’s two tribal gaming authorities, Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun. Nancy DiPaolo, an Interior Department spokeswoman, announced the Inspector General’s probe on Monday.

Last year, Connecticut’s legislature passed an amendment to longstanding revenue-sharing agreements between it’s treasury and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes. To proceed with a joint venture between the tribes for a satellite casino in East Windsor, the Department of the Interior had to approve the amendment.

The satellite casino was designed to protect Connecticut’s tribal casinos from capital flight to the MGM Springfield, a $960 million integrated casino-resort only 25 miles down the road from Hartford. Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods have casinos in the southeastern part of Connecticut, but residents in the northeastern part of the state would be closer to MGM Springfield.

Much-Delayed Answer from Ryan Zinke

When tribal casinos make petitions for approval on gaming compact amendments to the US Deparmtent of the Interior and its subdivision, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the department has 60 days to render a decision. Months have passed since a submission was made.

The Interior Department IG’s investigation has been underway since February, though it was announced this week. The probe began shortly after four US congressmen who represent Connecticut — Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Sen. Chris Murphy, Rep. John Larson, and Rep. Joe Courtney — who requested an investigation back in February 2018.

Nancy DiPaolo on Inspector General’s Probe

Nancy DiPaolo said no decision was imminent. In fact, the probe might take months to complete. The four US congressmen who called for the IG investigation wanted the process probed, but they also asked to know what role Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke played in the non-decision.

Those concerned about Ryan Zinke’s influence believe the Interior Secretary might be influenced by the lobbyists for MGM Springfield, the casino which opens later this year less than 30 minutes drive across the Massachusetts-Connecticut border.

Connecticut Lawmakers Called for Investigation

Sen. Richard Blumenthal also wanted to know whether President Donald Trump had a role in the decision making process. As a commercial casino operator in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Donald Trump had several high-profile clashes with tribal gaming companies. New York tribes sued Donald Trump and Roger Stone in the late-1990s, because they believed their anti-tribal gaming literature defamed them.

Donald Trump also sought a casino in Connecticut, but was rebuffed. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen wrote in a legal opinion that past actions of Connecticut’s political leaders might have changed the tone of relations between Connecticut and the federal government on casino issues.

George Jepsen’s Report

Connecticut AG George Jepsen wrote in the opinion that the US Interior Department originally told Connecticut representatives they saw no problem with the amendments to the revenue-sharing agreement.

“However,” wrote Jepsen, “It cannot be ignored that there has been a change in presidential administrationsThere is no guarantee that the Interior Department will follow past practice in the exercise of its authority.”

In the opinion, Connecticut’s leading prosecutor wrote, “[Donald Trump] was actively involved in pursuing casino gaming interests in Connecticut, and the significance of those activities, among other things, for our present considerations is, at best, difficult to judge.”

Andrew Doba: “Something Clearly Happened”

Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes Venture (MMCT Venture), said of the long delay and lack of clarity, “Something clearly happened to pollute the process, which should be problematic for an administration that promised to drain the swamp.”

Politico published an article which stated Ryan Zinke had met with lobbyists for MGM Resorts, the Las Vegas casino company which is developing MGM Springfield. While no wrongdoing was alleged, the revelation cast doubt on the fairness of Ryan Zinke’s actions — or lack of action.

Doba thanked the Interior Department’s Inspector General for launching a probe into the process. The spokesman for the MMCT Venture said, “We are grateful there’s an [inspector general] investigation into this issue because since last fall, none of the department’s actions have passed the smell test.”