Maine casino takes shape as referendum gears up

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SANFORD, Maine - Two Native peoples with a point to make about sovereignty are pushing ahead with plans for a casino even though their campaign is just under way to win state voter approval.

Leaders of the Penobscot Nation and the two governments of the Passamaquoddy Indians announced June 19 that they have an option on a casino location in this southern Maine town, about a four-hour drive from the nearest reservation. The 300 acres across from a local airport would be the site of a $650-million gaming and resort complex designed to draw on the dense population of eastern Massachusetts. Sanford is the only town in Maine's York County whose voters have approved location of a casino in their midst.

Before building, however, casino advocates first have to win a statewide referendum on this November's ballot.

Announcement of the option sets up a significant milestone in the project, which emerged to heated debate over a year ago. "Once you talk about a specific location, then it becomes more real," Donna Loring, a state representative for the Penobscot Nation, said in the Portland Press Herald.

Recent polls show that 60 percent of the voters favor a casino, although sentiments on an earlier non-Indian gaming measure shifted sharply from a similar early approval to a landslide defeat on Election Day. The pro-casino committee "Think About It" is already running television commercials and has raised about four times the campaign fund of the opposing "Casino No!" committee.

The commercials emphasize job creation and the money the casino would contribute to state and local government. The ballot measure provides that 25 percent of gross revenues from "video facsimiles" would go to the state and that half of that fund would be disbursed to local governments.

Less visibly, the campaign continues the sovereignty struggle of the three tribal governments, which erupted in 2001 in the course of maneuvering over federal clean water regulations. Leaders of the three tribes refused to turn over internal documents to a consortium of upstream paper companies they had accused of polluting their rivers. A state court judge entered a contempt citation that would have jailed the tribal leaders for at least a year. Although the conflict ended with a compromise decision in the State Supreme Court and a production of documents under protest, it casts a long shadow over the casino project.

The November referendum would also amend the state Implementation Act for the federal settlement of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy land claims case in 1980. Language in the act that apparently compromised the sovereign status of the tribes lay at the heart of the earlier dispute. It also barred gaming as a major tool of tribal economic development, and courts have held that its provision supersedes the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act for the two nations.

Two other Maine tribes, the Arostook Band of Mic-Mac Indians and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, were not affected by the paper company lawsuit and are not involved in the casino project. They argue they are not covered by the Implementation Act

The option on the Sanford land is registered in the name of Two Tribes Enterprises, a limited liability corporation of tribal members. The principals are Robert Newell, Passamaquoddy governor at Indian Township reservation; Melvin Francis, Passamaquoddy governor at Pleasant Point reservation; and Barry Dana, Penobscot chief. The two Passamaquoddy governors took office after settlement of the paper company suit. Dana is now serving his second two-year term. The company agent is Penobscot tribal counsel Mark Chavaree.

The casino campaign is coordinated from the law office of Tom Tureen, who brought the original land claims suit more than two decades ago and helped draft the controversial federal Settlement Act and state Implementation Act. Tureen appears in recent state filings as a major financial supporter of the "Think About It" committee, with contributions of $68,000.

The bulk of the funding, however, more than $400,000 has come from Las Vegas developer Marnell Corrao. According to Erin Lehane, spokeswoman for "Think About It" and law partner in Tureen's firm, Corrao has hired an engineering firm to evaluate the Sanford land. Corrao, she said, has a letter of understanding with the tribes to design and built the casino.