Regulators wading through Southeast Mass. casino issues

Friday 6th December 2019

BOSTON -- As they continue to mull the question of issuing the final casino license available under an eight-year-old law, gaming commissioners were brought up to speed Thursday on the complex web of litigation and legislation surrounding the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's quest to secure land in trust, on which it intends to build a southeastern Massachusetts casino.

The briefing from the Gaming Commission's executive director and legal team was meant to give the decisionmakers a sense of the ongoing legal wrangling over the decision to approve the tribe's land in trust, which was granted by the Obama administration but overturned and thrown into doubt by the Trump administration. The tribe planned to construct its $1 billion First Light Resort and Casino on tribal land in Taunton, a project that would have a significant impact on the state's commercial casino industry.

Region C -- the commission's name for Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties -- has been an unsettled matter for the commission for years. In 2016, when it appeared a tribal casino in Taunton was likely, regulators rejected a proposal for a commercial casino in Brockton. Since then, the commission has discussed reopening the bidding for Region C, but has not been in any rush to take that step.We can deliver news just like this directly to your inbox. You can sign up for This Just In (a 7:30 p.m. newsletter with items we've posted that day), News Alerts (so you don't miss anything important), our Daily Newsletter (sent each morning) and more. It's customized to your preferences -- and it'll only take a few seconds.

"What we're attempting to do here is to provide a framework for the beginning of that discussion," Executive Director Edward Bedrosian told commissioners at the outset of the briefing Thursday.

A federal judge's ruling later in 2016 nullified the Obama administration's decision to grant the Wampanoag a 320-acre reservation on which the tribe planned to construct a resort casino and President Donald Trump's administration last year officially reversed the Obama-era declaration.

Since then, the tribe's efforts to secure its land in trust status have been tied up in federal court. Deputy General Counsel Todd Grossman walked commissioners through the three main cases at play -- Littlefield et al. v. U.S. Department of the Interior, in which a judge ruled in 2016 that the land could not be held in trust and was later appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The appeal -- Littlefield, et al. v. Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribe -- remains pending.

There's also a case in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia -- Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe v. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt -- in which the tribe argues that the interior secretary failed to properly consider extensive factual evidence it submitted to make the case that it should be eligible for land in trust.

Associate General Counsel Justin Stempeck told commissioners that the D.C. district case is "pending with multiple current summary judgment motions" and he estimated that no resolution would come until the latter end of a six to nine-month window.

As the tribe works to secure its land in trust through the courts, U.S. Rep. William Keating, who represents Taunton and Mashpee, has pushed legislation that would use the power of Congress to reaffirm the 2015 decision by the Interior Department to take land into trust for the tribe, though Trump has opposed it.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 275-146 in May to approve that bill, titled the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, and it has not moved since being referred to the U.S. Senate that same month.

In addition to getting up to speed on the lawsuits and federal legislation involving the tribe, the commission also agreed in October to have its staff draft a request for information that would solicit information on all sorts of relevant Region C matters, like the state of the gaming market, local support and more.

Bedrosian presented a list of questions that he said could either be crafted into a formal request for information, be made part of a solicitation for public comment, or both. Commissioners appeared interested in both an RFI and public comment, so they can get input from different groups on different issues.

Bedrosian said he and his team would return to the commission with "a list of RFI questions [and] a list of public comment questions, with the idea that the RFI questions will be more specific on the metrics and granularities of potentially when to do a study and how to study impacts, and I think the public comment questions might be more policy-based."

Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said she was interested in questions that "reflect the struggle we have with respect to equity" and include an examination of the statewide implications of a Region C casino as well as the impact to the surrounding communities.

"I think we do have an obligation to consider the best interest of the commonwealth as well as the region," she said. "It's not lost on I don't think any of us here that Region C folks, not all, may be interested in having a casino because of the economic benefits that we've seen coming through both regions A and B, yet we are not obligated ... to issue another license. So I am particularly interested in the question around the impact of Region C in the absence of our issuing a license."

One concern, as expressed by local officials and others, is that commercial casino operators might not be willing to invest the minimum $500 million in a project that could have to compete with a nearby tribal casino. If the Gaming Commission opts to go ahead with licensing a commercial casino in Region C and the tribe is allowed to open its own casino under federal law, Massachusetts would receive no tax revenue from the tribal casino.

The commission did not vote to take any particular action Thursday but agreed to provide feedback on an eventual new draft prepared by staff at a later date.

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