Nations seek N.Y. casinos

At least four tribal nations are pursuing opportunities to open casinos in New York, but a number of roadblocks need to be dismantled before any of them can move forward.

Representatives of the Seneca Nation of Indians, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, and the Shinnecock Indian Nation attended the two-day 8th Annual New York Gaming Summit at the Gideon Putnam Hotel and Conference Center in Saratoga Springs at the end of June.

All of them reiterated plans to pursue Class III gaming in various parts of the state. But all of them face obstacles, including land into trust or restricted fee status before any casino can be built.

A recent court filing by the Obama administration’s Justice Department in an off reservation gaming case seems to continue Bush-era policies that make it difficult for tribes to take off reservation land into trust.

Of the four nations, the Shinnecock face the longest road to casino ownership: They must first achieve federal acknowledgment.

The nation, whose 800-acre reservation is on what is known as Southampton, Long Island, cleared a major hurdle toward that goal in May when it signed a court-ordered settlement with the Interior Department requiring the BIA to issue a proposed finding on the tribe’s petition for federal acknowledgment by the end of the year.

The settlement resulted from a lawsuit the tribe filed against Interior after the secretary refused to abide by a federal court judge’s 2005 ruling that the Shinnecocks are an Indian tribe according to the acknowledgment criteria and insisted instead that the tribe go through the BIA’s recognition process.

The tribe is one of the oldest continuously self-governing sovereign nations in the country with one of the best documented petitions for federal acknowledgment, according to John A. Strong, a retired Long Island University professor who has written three books about the Indians of Long Island. The petition was filed in 1978, soon after the federal recognition process was established.

With a proposed finding by the end of the year, the tribe expects a positive final ruling sometime in 2010.

If the final determination is positive, and the tribe doesn’t have to battle through another appeal, it still faces the often lengthy process of acquiring land in trust for a casino.

A split among Shinnecock tribal leaders became apparent at the Gaming Summit, according to the East Hampton Press.

Lance Gumbs, a former longtime head of the three-member tribal board of trustees who lost his bid for re-election this year, has always supported a casino in Suffolk County, near the tribe’s territory. He was appointed last year to a Suffolk County Legislature subcommittee formed specifically to explore the possibility and economic benefits of a casino located somewhere in the county.

In a report that came out of that subcommittee, Gumbs said, “We started this for jobs for our people. It was supposed to be a place where Shinnecock people could work and have good paying jobs. There are some real bad examples out there of what just giving handouts does to tribe members.”

The current trustees, led by Randy King, are leaning toward a casino location closer to New York City, possibly at the Belmont Racetrack near the Queens-Nassau border, or even across the Hudson River in the Catskills region. At the conference, Trustee Frank Bess said “anywhere in New York state” would satisfy the tribe’s casino needs, according to the report. Bess said employment for tribal members was not important as long as casino profits were going to benefit the tribe.

If the tribe achieves federal acknowledgment without any further hitches, as expected, it could immediately open a Class II gaming facility on its reservation while tribal leaders sort out the location and details of a Class III operation.

The Seneca Nation, however, knows exactly where it wants to open a new casino: in Bridgeville, Town of Thompson, Monticello County, N.Y.

In May, Seneca President Barry Snyder and Sullivan County legislators and officials signed a mitigation agreement that will provide direct payments to the county from a proposed Class III Seneca casino.

“This local mitigation agreement is significant for several reasons, foremost perhaps for signifying the strong partnership that has developed between the Seneca Nation and the leadership of Sullivan County and the Town of Thompson,” Snyder said. “It is important to us that local officials and residents understand that the Seneca Nation was always willing to meet at the table to forge an agreement that was going to be mutually acceptable and mutually beneficially. I believe we have achieved this.”

The Seneca Nation will pay $15.5 million to the county during the two year construction phase of the 1,500-room hotel and spa, 2 million-square-foot casino facility with 6,000 slots, 120 table games, 30 poker tables, a race book center, 12 restaurants, high end retail shops, a 5,000-seat arena, and 100,000-square-foot banquet space. The nation will pay $20 million for the four years after the casino and hotel have been completed and additional funding tied to the economic success of the facility.

The Stockbridge-Munsee Band also plans a casino in Thompson and the St. Regis Mohawks have revived its plans for a casino at the Monticello Raceway.

St. Regis’ plans were in the final stages when the Interior Department pulled its approval in January 2008 a day after former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, a well-known opponent of off reservation casinos, issued a guidance memorandum establishing a new “commutability” standard for off reservation casinos based on the distance between a reservation and the casino location.

In April, the St. Regis Mohawks asked the Interior to rescind the document.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., supports the Sullivan County casino proposals and last month he asked Larry EchoHawk, the new BIA head, to take a fresh look at applications for Indian gaming there.

But a July 1 filing by the Justice Department said the St. Croix Band of Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, which is seeking off reservation casino land, cannot challenge the off reservation policies of the Bush administration.

The nation’s lawsuit makes two main claims: that the Bush administration changed the way off reservation casinos are reviewed in order to make it easier to reject them; and that the guidance memorandum was developed without tribal consultation or public input.

In the D.C. Circuit brief, Justice Department attorneys said neither claim can be reviewed in court because they don’t represent a “final agency action.”