Governor says Aquinnah tribe forfeited rights to casino

The entry page of the Wampanoag Tribe's new gaming website does not reflect the odds of securing a casino license. — Photo courtesy of Wampanoag Tribe

Lawyers are making “good progress” negotiating a gaming compact between state government and the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, Gov. Deval Patrick said April 26, as the tribe detailed its plans for a resort casino in Taunton.

The governor’s update on compact talks came as the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) suggested potential legal action if Governor Patrick refuses to negotiate with them. The tribe was responding to a letter from Patrick administration lawyers who said they have not been authorized to start compact talks with that tribe.

Aquinnah Tribe Chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said in a statement that thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in government revenue are at stake. “We are hopeful that formal negotiations will commence immediately,” she said. “Otherwise, we will pursue those legal remedies available to us.” She suggested remedies may be pursued in federal court under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Saying that he hoped to “clear up some confusion,” Mr. Patrick said during an interview on WTKK-FM that the November 2011 casino law included a mechanism for a gaming compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag, but he noted that the Aquinnah Tribe had also suggested they are “entitled” to tribal gaming.

“They are a federally recognized tribe,” Mr. Patrick said, referring to the Aquinnah Wampanoag. “You have to have land [on the mainland] in trust and so forth and they don’t. Our counsel are meeting with them because I respect the Aquinnah and I think it’s appropriate that we meet. But we have been advised that legally the Aquinnah have waived their rights to tribal gaming. That doesn’t mean they can’t apply for a commercial license, get a partner and, you know, compete for one. But that’s what we’ve been advised as a matter of law.”

The gambling law appears to give the Mashpee Wampanoag the inside track for a casino designated for the southeastern Massachusetts region, depending on whether Mr. Patrick and the tribe can negotiate a compact and get it ratified by the Legislature by July 31.

The law authorizes destination resort casinos in two other regions, for a total of three, and Mr. Patrick said, “I think that’s where we’ll land at the end.”

The law states that the governor “shall only enter into negotiations…with a tribe that has purchased, or entered into an agreement to purchase, a parcel of land for the proposed tribal gaming development and scheduled a vote in the host communities for approval of the proposed tribal gaming development.”

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), one of the architects of the casino law, told the News Service in early April that because the Aquinnah Tribe already has federal land in trust on Martha’s Vineyard, and arguably forfeited certain gaming rights in exchange for other benefits when that tribal land was acquired, he does not consider their bid in the same league as the Mashpee Tribe.

“I’d put them in a different situation, and this will be a discussion for the lawyers and the courts, but I think they have an extraordinarily difficult case to make,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

In an April 20 letter, Jerome Levine of Holland & Knight, the Patrick administration’s outside counsel on gaming compact issues, wrote to Aquinnah Tribe attorneys that it’s been the state’s position for more than a decade that the Aquinnah’s Land Claims Settlement Act and related settlement agreement “acknowledges, preserves and protects the Commonwealth’s authority to regulating gaming both on the Aquinnah’s land in Gay Head and on any after-acquired land within Massachusetts.”

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe officials gathered in Taunton last Thursday to detail their plans for a casino there, saying it would use union labor, put 1,000 people to work during the construction phase, and create more than 2,500 permanent jobs during its initial phase of operations.

The tribe pledged “generous benefits” for workers at casinos, with an expected annual salary for workers of about $35,000 and an annual operating payroll of $80 million. The tribe hopes to build a casino on a 146-acre parcel at the intersections of Rtes. 24 and 140 over a five-year period at a cost of more than $500 million. Three 300-room hotels are included in the Taunton casino plan.

Earlier this month, the Aquinnah Wampanoag launched a website aimed at bringing information to residents of Freetown, Lakeville, and Fall River, communities where that tribe may push for a casino. The tribe may announce a development partner as early as next week, according to spokesman Jim McManus.

A vote on the Aquinnah’s Freetown plan is scheduled for Tuesday, May 29, and Lakeville has scheduled a vote on the tribe’s plans there for Saturday, June 2. Fall River has still not scheduled a vote, according to a tribe spokesman. According to the Aquinnah, the tribe has executed either an option to purchase or purchase-and-sale agreements on parcels in each community “that will be placed into trust.”