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Pokagon Band faces last legal roadblock

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court has heard arguments in a long,
drawn-out lawsuit filed by a Michigan anti-casino group that has delayed
for years the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi's plan to open a gaming facility
in the southwest part of the state.

The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. heard 15-minute
oral arguments Dec. 8 from attorneys for the tribe and for TOMAC --
Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos.

The citizens group includes wealthy businessmen and land owners who oppose
the Pokagon's plan to open Four Winds Casino Resort on 675 acres of land in
New Buffalo, Mich.

In 2001, TOMAC filed a lawsuit against Interior Department Secretary Gale
Norton to prevent the BIA from taking the tribe's land into trust, arguing
that the BIA had not adequately complied with the National Environmental
Policy Act. The Pokagon Band became interveners in the case.

The lawsuit wended its way through various courts and appeals. At one
point, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson said the BIA had
inadequately considered secondary impacts from the proposed casino, which
is expected to create 5,600 new jobs and require housing for 800 families.

The BIA issued a lengthy supplemental report and a finding of no
significant impacts. Last spring, Robertson ruled that the BIA had
adequately evaluated all of the social, economic and environmental impacts
and dismissed TOMAC's lawsuit. Robertson noted that the lawsuit had come
before his court three times.

The appellate court will hear TOMAC's appeal of that dismissal.

Pokagon Chief John Miller said he hoped the hearing will be the final
roadblock before the tribe can move ahead with its casino project.

"This should be the last step, and we're relatively confident that the
court will rule in our favor. We're a tribe that's following the process to
get our land into trust. We already have a gaming compact with the
governor. We have the support of everybody in the region who will be
affected by the project. The only people who are opposed to our casino are
the people we'll be competing against," Miller said.

The appellate court decision will not only end the current the lawsuit
against the Pokagons, but will also set a precedent for the Gun Lake Tribe
of Potawatomi Indians, which faces an almost identical opposition and
pending lawsuit from a similar citizens group called MichCO, Michigan
Opposition to Gambling, which has connections to TOMAC.

The court decision will also resolve a campaign of intersecting opposition
to Indian gaming in Michigan that was muddied by the activities of indicted
former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon,
who are at the center of a wide-ranging scandal involving kickbacks,
illegal campaign donations and influence-peddling. The two are accused of
defrauding their tribal clients of more than $80 million while pitting
tribe against tribe. In November, Scanlon pleaded guilty to conspiracy to
commit fraud.

"All of this is related in some way to the lobbying efforts against all
tribal nations, and in some ways is tied to Jack Abramoff," Miller said.

The Pokagons were federally acknowledged as a restored tribe by an act of
Congress in 1994, 60 years after petitioning the federal government. The
restoration act allowed Interior to sign an agreement in 1999 to take 4,700
acres of land into trust for the tribe, including the 675 acre parcel in
New Buffalo that is slated for the casino under the Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act.

TOMAC's opposition kicked in immediately and its series of lawsuits and
appeals has so far prevented Interior from taking the Pokagons' land into

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The group filed its first lawsuit in Michigan Supreme Court in 1999,
challenging IGRA compacts for the Pokagon and three other Michigan tribes
that had been signed by the governor and approved by a legislative

TOMAC claimed the Legislature needed to pass a formal bill rather than a
resolution. The state court ruling that the compacts were legal was upheld
by the appellate court.

While the Pokagon's casino plans were besieged by TOMAC, the Gun Lake
Tribe's plan to open a casino near Grand Rapids was targeted by MichGO and
other related groups.

Both TOMAC and MichGO's efforts dovetail with the efforts by Boyd Gaming to
prevent Pokagon from opening a casino.

Boyd Gaming, a multibillion-dollar Las Vegas company, operates the Blue
Chip Casino in nearby Indiana, nine miles from the Pokagons' proposed

In 1999, Boyd Gaming entered into a "consulting agreement" with former Blue
Chip owner Kevin Flynn that would pay Flynn $42,000 per month, plus
expenses, and an extra $5 million if he could postpone the Pokagon and
another Potawatomi band from opening casinos for five years. According to
the agreement, which was reviewed by Indian Country Today, Flynn was due to
collect the $5 million last November.

All three entities -- TOMAC, Boyd Gaming and Flynn -- are connected through
their use of the same high-powered Michigan law firm of Warner, Norcross &
Judd LLP.

Neither Boyd Gaming nor Flynn could be reached for comments, and messages
left with Warner, Norcross & Judd attorney Robert D. Jonker were not

The appellate court decision will also bring closure to the Saginaw
Chippewas, a tribe that has apologized for its involvement with Abramoff
and Scanlon, Miller said.

According to documents released in the federal investigation, the Saginaws
paid Abramoff and Scanlon more than $7 million to block rival casinos that
might siphon business from their Soaring Eagle Casino.

"In all fairness to the [Saginaw Chippewas], they currently have different
tribal leadership and they have made public apologies to the Pokagon Band
and all the other tribes and they no longer continue to operate that way
and I respect that," Miller said.

The rupture caused by the Saginaws' behavior has been healed, Miller

"The tribes get along well. There was really just a period of time when I
honestly believe a couple of snake oil salesmen came knocking at the tribal
door and they utterly convinced the tribe due to lack of sophistication
that they needed to employ them," Miller said.

The Pokagon Band expects a decision from the appellate court in the spring,
which they hope will allow them to complete their casino in less than two
years, Miller said.