Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe rejoins race to casino finish line

Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe rejoins race to casino finish line

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After remaining out of public view for months, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) moved on several fronts to overtake the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in the race to the casino license finish line in Massachusetts.

In emails and certified letters sent last week, tribe chairman Cheryl Maltais-Andrews asked officials in the towns of Freetown and Lakeville and the city of Fall River to schedule elections to ask voters in their respective communities to host a casino.

The casino bill Gov. Deval Patrick signed last year permits up to three casinos in Massachusetts, with the southeastern region license temporarily reserved for a federally recognized tribe.

A tribe seeking the southeastern casino license has until July 31 to obtain a deal for land and negotiate a compact with the Patrick administration. The legislature must ratify the compact for the agreement to move forward.

In a statement received late Wednesday, Ms. Andrews-Maltais said, “The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah received a response from the Governor’s office to our request to enter into negotiations for a gaming compact under state and federal law. The letter requests further details on a proposed site and host town vote, and we are in the process of responding to the Governor.”

Local approval is a requirement of the law that provides the only two federally recognized tribes in the state with a head start before the process is thrown open to a commercial casino developer.

The overture from the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe caught officials in the three communities by surprise, according to published reports. Lakeville chairman of the board of selectmen Steve Olivier told the Middleboro Gazette that the letter from Ms. Andrews-Maltais was out of the blue. “I was shocked when I saw it,” he said.

On Monday and Tuesday, Ms. Andrews-Maltais made the rounds, meeting with officials in Fall River, Lakeville, and Freetown. The tribe provided the officials with no information about possible sites in any of the communities or its financial backing.

In response to questions emailed from The Times, Ms. Andrews-Maltais said late Tuesday that officials in each town were very receptive. “Of course, since this was our initial in-person meet and greet,” she said, “we are all looking forward to our follow up and next steps meetings.”

The passage of gaming legislation has had an effect. “We have had a lot of commercial and private land owners approach us to see if we were interested in their lands, in Southeastern Mass and all over the Commonwealth,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais said.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe and the competing Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe have histories of soured relationships with well-heeled backers who spent millions in an attempt to be the first to open a casino in Massachusetts.

“The former leadership has had ‘several’ partners,” Ms. Maltais said, when asked who was now backing the tribe. “However, under my administration we have had the privilege of having several opportunities and offers. But it would be premature to share that information at this moment. I will share who we select to be the best fit for us when the time is appropriate to do so.”

The strategic benefit of reaching out to three communities simultaneously, but revealing little, was not immediately clear. Even as the Aquinnah tribe keeps its casino hand close to its vest, the clock is clearly ticking.

Mashpee rolls

After flirting with the town of Middleboro, last month, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe announced the start of talks with Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr. about siting a casino along Route 24 in the eastern portion of the city near the former Raynham dog racing track.

On Tuesday, Mayor Hoye said that he expects the city council to schedule a referendum on the Mashpee proposal for the first or second Saturday in June. The council, under law, must schedule the referendum within 60 to 90 days of the tribe’s request, giving the city until June 10 to hold a vote.

Once the vote is scheduled, the tribe can begin negotiating with Governor Patrick as the calendar ticks toward the July 31 deadline when the exclusive tribe negotiating window in the southeast region of the state will close.

Trust matters

The Mashpee Wampanoags received federal recognition in 2007. The Aquinnah Wampanoags gained recognition in 1987, prior to passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which set up a regulatory structure for Indian gaming.

Federal law requires states that allow gaming to negotiate gaming agreements with federally recognized tribes and gives broad rights to those tribes to construct gambling facilities on lands held “in trust” for those tribes by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Unlike the Mashpee tribe, the Aquinnah tribe owns land held in trust, but it is on the Vineyard.

Both tribes claim to have ancestral connections to land in southeastern Massachusetts where they would like to take land into trust and build a casino. The Mashpee tribe made a bid to place land in trust in 2007, an effort since abandoned, leaving behind hard feelings in the would-be host town of Middleboro.

In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the Secretary of the Interior does not have the authority to take land into trust for Indian nations that received federal recognition after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

Backers of the Mashpee Wampanoag say that the Aquinnah tribe gave up its rights to pursue gaming in what is known as the settlement agreement of 1983. That view was amplified in a front page story published Monday in the Boston Globe, which said the issue would likely end up in court.

The 1983 settlement agreement that led to federal recognition of the Aquinnah Wampanoags was signed by the tribe, the Gay Head Taxpayers Association, the town, and the state. It specifically provides that the settlement lands — land in Aquinnah (then Gay Head) owned or controlled by the tribe — are subject to all federal, state, and local laws, including town zoning laws, state and federal conservation laws, and the regulations of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

In the winter of 2001, the Wampanoag tribe erected a small shed on one of its ancestral lands, known as the Cook property, without a town building permit. In December 2004, the state’s highest court ruled that the tribe, then the only federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts, was not immune from zoning enforcement despite its federal recognition and its claim of sovereign immunity.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais told The Times that the settlement agreement has no bearing on gaming. “Our rights to game have never been given away or taken away,” she said. “This is a misconception based upon misinformation and misinterpretation of the laws. There is no law which prohibits our tribe from gaming.”

Long road

The fact that officials in the targeted towns are moving cautiously may have much to do with a history of past announcements and press conferences that have led to nothing.

The Gay Head tribe’s interest in gaming has followed a long path and involved a changing cast of partners.

In 1994, the tribe and its corporate backers, Carnival Hotels and Casinos, unveiled plans that depicted a 450,000-square-foot casino, a 270,000-square-foot entertainment complex, and a 500-room hotel with 8,000 to 9,000 parking spaces on 175 acres in the city of New Bedford.

The tribe next went to Fall River and tried to cut a new deal to build a 60,000-square-foot, 1,200-seat high-stakes bingo hall at the former Fall River Municipal Airport.

In August 2001, the tribe launched another effort to build a gambling casino in Southeastern Massachusetts by assembling a high-priced lobbying team to win support from state lawmakers. The tribe’s backing for its third attempt to build a casino came from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, which operates the highly profitable Paragon Casino in central Louisiana.

In October 2007, under the administration of Donald Widdiss, Ms. Andrews-Maltais’s predecessor, the Wampanoag Tribe signed a development agreement with the Seneca Nation, a tribe in New York that has developed two casinos. That agreement has since lapsed.

In January 2010, the tribe sent a letter to the Freetown selectmen expressing interest in potential sites for a gaming operation in that town. The tribe also sent a letter to the city council of Fall River, to ask for a meeting to discuss possible casino sites.

At the same time, leaders of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe met with the mayor of Fall River to talk about building a casino there.

In June 2010, as lawmakers prepared to take action on casino legislation, Naomi Carney, Aquinnah Wampanoag gaming corporation chairman, and her sister, Ms. Andrews-Maltais, the tribe’s chairman, held a press conference and said they would construct a gaming facility on their 450 acres on Martha’s Vineyard if the tribe did not receive a state gambling license under the proposed law.

The suggestion of a casino on Martha’s Vineyard generated headlines but had little effect on the gaming debate.

Even as she leads the tribe forward in a high-stakes effort to build a casino, in August of 2011, Ms. Andrews-Maltais filed personal bankruptcy jointly with her husband, Daniel Maltais, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court documents. Court records show the couple had $216,954 in unsecured debt, mostly owed on 20 separate credit cards. The court granted the bankruptcy petition in December 2011.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais told The Times she did not understand what relevance her personal difficulties had on her professional performance. She said that following her election to the Aquinnah tribe’s leadership in January 2008, she completed seven federal audits.

“We went from 21 findings for the 2005, 2006 and 2007 audits to zero findings for our 2011 audit,” she said.

She highlighted her leadership accomplishments. They included, she said, increased federal assistance, expanded services for elders on the mainland, heating assistance, a grant to assist the completion of the tribe’s community center, the cleanup of Menemsha Pond, and the donation of another ambulance to the Tri-Town Ambulance Service.

With a reference to her landslide election win in 2010, Ms. Andres-Maltais said, “So I guess I’m doing something right. Not to mention I have been invited to the White House on three occasions, two holiday parties, and the Bruins Celebrations. I don’t know of any other tribal leader who has been so honored.”