Zinke's agency held up Indians’ casino after MGM lobbying

Two tribes in Connecticut say the Interior Department illegally failed to say yes or no to their plans for a third casino in the state.

Two casino-owning American Indian tribes are accusing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of illegally blocking their plans to expand operations in Connecticut — a delay that stands to benefit politically connected gambling giant MGM Resorts International.

The Interior Department’s refusal to sign off on the tribes’ plans for a third Connecticut casino came after Zinke and other senior department officials held numerous meetings and phone calls with MGM lobbyists and the company’s Republican supporters in Congress, according to a POLITICO review of Zinke’s schedule, lobbying registrations and other documents. The documents don’t indicate whether they discussed the tribes’ casino project.

Federal law gives Interior just 45 days to issue a yes-or-no verdict after a tribe submits proposed changes to its gaming compact with a state, as the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes note in a suit they filed against Zinke and the department. But the department declined to make any decision in this case, an inaction that raises questions about whether an intensive lobbying campaign by one of the gambling industry’s biggest players muscled aside the interests of both the tribes and the state of Connecticut.

“I think the Department of Interior has been derelict in failing to give approval” to the tribes’ request, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told POLITICO. “We asked for a meeting, but they were unresponsive. They never even responded.”

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