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Mohawks sue Kempthorne for land into trust delay

AKWESASNE, N.Y. - The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe is suing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for his failure to take action on its $600 million off-reservation casino project.

In a prepared statement issued Oct. 31, tribal officials said they charged Kempthorne with ''undue delay and acting in bad faith with respect to the tribe's fully completed, yet inexplicably languishing land into trust application.''

The tribe's lawsuit, filed that day in U.S. District Court in Washington, asks the court to compel Kempthorne to act within 30 days on the tribe's application to place more than 29 acres of land into trust for its Monticello Gaming and Raceway casino project in Sullivan County.

While the project is roughly 300 miles from the tribe's reservation, it is within driving distance of New York City - a huge urban population from which the tribe hopes to draw customers. The project includes a 776,000-square-foot, two-story casino and entertainment complex with around 125 table games, 3,500 slot machines, 24 poker tables and numerous restaurants and retail venues. The facility is expected to generate around 3,000 permanent jobs in an area of the state that is in need of economic development.

The Monticello project received environmental approval in the form of a Finding of No Significant Impact issued by Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason in December 2006.

In December 2006, Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason issued a Finding of No Significant Impact on the project. It has received unprecedented support from the state's local, state and congressional elected officials as well.

The tribe says Kempthorne is the source of the delay in moving forward.

''It is unfortunate that we have to file a lawsuit to compel the secretary to do his job, and it is unacceptable that our completed application has been pending at the department for nearly nine months,'' said Lorraine White, one of the Mohawk's three chiefs.

Last February, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer executed a tribal/state compact with the tribe for the project, under which the state will receive 20 percent of revenues from slot machines for the first two years, 23 percent for the next two years and 25 percent thereafter.

At the same time, Spitzer concurred with the BIA's decision to complete Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act - the ''two-part determination'' for off-reservation trust land for gaming, which requires a governor's approval.

Despite widespread opposition over the past few years to what Indian gaming opponents have called ''reservation shopping,'' only three tribes have received approval for off-reservation gaming projects since the 1988 passage of IGRA - the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe of Wisconsin, the Kalispel Tribe of Washington and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Michigan, according to George Skibine, the BIA's director of the Office of Indian Gaming Management.

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Spitzer reiterated his support for the tribal casino when he heard about tribe's lawsuit against Kempthorne.

''Obviously, we are as desirous as [the tribe at] having the Department of the Interior approve this as quickly as possible. We want the development to go forward. What we want is to get the approval as quickly as we can from the Department of the Interior,'' Spitzer told the Mid-Hudson News Network.

Mohawk leaders said Kempthorne disregarded numerous requests from them and from Spitzer to meet in person to discuss the matter. They noted that Kempthorne, during his confirmation hearing, stated that he did not support ''reservation shopping'' but would continue to implement the Section 20 regulations.

''At best, he has not lived up to his word; and at worst, the secretary misled the Congress of the United States,'' said Tribal Chief Barbara Lazore.

The chiefs allege that Kempthorne interfered in the process because of a ''personal bias'' held over from his days as governor of Idaho when he was ''adamantly opposed to off-reservation casinos.''

The dichotomy between Kempthorne's position as governor and his duties as Interior secretary has been acknowledged by Interior. Speaking at a United South and Eastern Tribes meeting earlier this year, Cason said the department was ''in the process of trying to reconcile his [Kempthorne's] views as governor and his activities as governor with his role as secretary.''

Mohawk leaders echoed that sentiment.

''The secretary needs to put aside his personal objections and recognize that New York is not Idaho, and that he is no longer a state governor, but a cabinet appointed official charged with implementing federal laws,'' said Tribal Chief James Ransom.

The state Legislature passed a state law specifically inviting gaming to Sullivan County, Ransom noted.

''This is unlike the secretary's experience as governor of Idaho, where there was strong opposition on both state and local levels to Indian gaming. Ignoring the rights of a sovereign state and a sovereign Indian tribe, combined with a pattern of misdirection, inaction and lack of communications, threatens the integrity of all federal administrative proceedings,'' Ransom said.

Shane Wolfe, Kempthorne's press secretary, said it is Interior's policy not to comment on pending litigation.

''I will add, however, that this latest suit is one of thousands of lawsuits pending against the department on various issues in courts around the country,'' Wolfe said.