The Interior Ministry has signed a tribal casino project in Connecticut, which suddenly reverses an earlier decision that is in focus for an ongoing investigation into possible criminal offenses by rolled-out former secretary Ryan Zinke.
In 2017, Interior blocked a proposed casino partnership between two Connecticut tribes, Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan. Casino resort giant MGM Resorts International lobbied against federal approval of the project, seeing it as competition to its casino in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts. The operation required the approval of the Department of the Institute's Department of Indian Affairs.
The two tribes sued the agency and claimed that Zinke refused to sign up for the request due to "improper political influence." Domestic internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, opened an investigation of the case last year, and later referred the probe to the Justice Department, as The Washington Post reported.
In February, a grand jury was reviewed by prosecutors to decide whether Zinke lied to federal investigators about the agency's first decision, according to the post. Zinke has denied any offense.
Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary of Indian affairs, offered little explanation of the change of course on a Thursday notice, except to say that the agency had "further consultations with the tribe."
Rodney Butler, Chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said Thursday was "a great day" for the tribe and state.
"Once the approval of our change is assured and our exclusivity agreement with Connecticut is confirmed, we will proceed with building at the Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor and preserve much needed jobs and revenue," he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, MGM has pledged to continue its legal battle. It claims it was constitutional for the state to approve an off-booking casino without a competitive bid, The Connecticut Mirror Reports.
Four members of the Connecticut delegation ̵
The department had not approved these changes in Mashantucket Pequot Tribe Gaming Procedures for nearly two years – long since the staff of the Institute of Indian Affairs recommended an approval, they said. "This unnecessary and unethical delay has led to a large jury investigation, which is still ongoing, and an inspector general review of the department's actions. We look forward to their findings."
David Bernhardt, the acting interior manager and nominee replacing Zinke, met several times with lobbyists for MGM, who was also the client of lobbying where Bernhardt worked before being stuck in the administration, as previously reported by HuffPost. The ethics agreement he signed last year bore him from participating in cases involving his former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. A lobbyist, who was hired by MGM specifically to lobby the tribal casino, insisted that their meeting was a "social visit" reported by HuffPost.