BRADLEY, Mich. - A U.S. District Court judge has tossed out a lawsuit filed by anti-Indian casino group MichGO against the Interior Department, freeing the federal agency to take land into trust for the Gun Lake Tribe's long- planned gaming and entertainment project.
MichGO - Michigan Gambling Opposition - challenged Interior's May 2005 decision to take 146 acres in Bradley, in southwestern Michigan, into trust for the tribe. Gun Lake, whose formal name is the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, was an intervener on the government's side in the legal action.
Judge Garrett Penn found that MichGO could not prove any of the facts it alleged in the issues it raised in support of its argument to stop Interior from taking Gun Lake's land into trust.
Having reviewed the entire record, Penn wrote, ''The court concludes that Plaintiff has raised no genuine issues of material fact and defendants and intervener are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.''
Tribal council Chairman D.K. Sprague welcomed the ruling, which came six years after the tribe filed its application for land into trust.
''This decision is a cause for great celebration, both for the tribe and the people of West Michigan who dream of economic opportunities and good paying jobs with great benefits,'' Sprague said.
''We are now one very short step from recovering an important piece of our traditional homelands and we will continue to work with the federal government to expeditiously complete the trust process,'' Sprague said.
MichGO President Todd Boorsma issued a prepared statement saying his organization intends to appeal the ruling.
''Yesterday's ruling is obviously disappointing, but we have known since day one that our legal challenge is an uphill battle. However, we will continue to pursue every possible legal and legislative avenue to uphold our state's right to stop this unwanted casino.
''Michigan has reached a critical time where we must wrap our arms around casino expansion while we still can. As the Jack Abramoff scandal showed us last year, tribal gaming law is broken, outdated and open to manipulation by special interests,'' Boorsma said.
Boorsma's reference to the former Republican lobbyist, who was indicted in January 2006 on corruption and fraud charges, is fraught with irony in this context.
During its investigation, the Justice Department found that Abramoff tried to get Interior to insist that Gun Lake perform an Environmental Impact Statement - a more rigorous investigation than the Environmental Assessment the tribe conducted - in order to block Gun Lake's casino to protect the market share of a nearby casino operated by one of his clients.
MichGO also proposed the same tactic - insisting on an EIS - after Interior issued a ''Finding Of No Significant Impact.'' The federal agency denied the request and in his ruling, Penn found ''the EA thoroughly considered the Bradley property's foreseeable impacts on growth, residential and commercial development, land and water resources, wetlands, wildlife, socioeconomic and cultural issues, traffic and pollution.''
Sprague said the tribe is confident of winning an appeal because of a precedent set last year when the federal court of appeals in Washington dismissed an identical lawsuit that sought to delay the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi - Gun Lake's cousins and neighbors - from developing Four Winds Casino Resort.
Two days before Penn's ruling, MichGO filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop Interior from moving forward with taking the tribe's land into trust.
But Interior had already stated its intention to take the land into trust sometime after March 5, Gun Lake spokesman Jim Nye said.
''That's what prompted MichGO to file the motion for preliminary injunction. But the judge said he was going to issue the ruling and he did issue it, so he has already, by way of his decision, not granted MichGO an injunction. Now, if they go forward, they'll have to seek an injunction at the appellate level. But we think it's highly unlikely that an injunction would be granted; would stop the land from going into trust at this point,'' Nye said.
Ground-breaking for the casino could happen within two months of the land being taken into trust. The tribe is aiming for an opening as early as the summer of 2008, Sprague said.
Meanwhile, the tribe will seek to negotiate a gaming compact with the state.
''We've played by the rules and waited patiently for the governor to sign our compact for more than six years. With Judge Penn's ruling and the inevitability of our land going into trust, we are now officially asking Governor [Jennifer] Granholm to approve a tribal/state Class III compact,'' Sprague said.
The tribe anticipates that its casino will create 1,800 direct jobs, with a total average annual compensation package of $40,000; 3,000 indirect jobs; and more than $20 million annually in direct purchases of goods and services from West Michigan businesses.
Local city and township councils support the tribe, as well as more than 40 organizations, businesses and chambers of commerce that form the Western Michigan Economic Alliance. The tribe is also championed by local residents, who formed a group called Friends of Gun Lake Indians and set up a Web site - www.fogli.org - to voice their support.