Lobbyists battle it out over Mashpee tribe’s casino plan

TAUNTON — As a new chapter begins in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s legal fight for its land, a high stakes lobbying campaign in the nation’s capital is pitting powerful gambling interests against a foreign casino developer with the fate of the tribe’s 321-acre reservation hanging in the balance.

In a year marked mostly by setbacks for the tribe, notable attorneys and lobbyists — some working at cross-purposes —are converging on the halls of Congress in a struggle to win over lawmakers who may soon consider legislation that, if passed, would declare the tribe’s reservation lawful, reversing findings by the U.S. Department of the Interior and a federal court judge.

A bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., would do just that: settle the multiyear and so far successful legal challenge brought by neighbors of the tribe’s proposal to build a resort-casino in Taunton, effectively greenlighting the project and ending any question about the legality of the tribe’s trust lands.

The legislation is a pivotal piece in the tribe’s fight to protect its sovereignty. Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell has urged support for the bill, emphasizing the grave and unprecedented threat facing the tribe, which spent decades pursuing federal recognition and trust status with the government.

“I’m asking people of goodwill and those concerned with justice for the indigenous people of this — the first Americans — to stand with us in calling on Congress to protect our reservation and ensure we don’t become the first tribe since the dark days of the Termination Era to lose its land,” Cromwell said in a statement after the Sept. 7 decision from the Interior, which said the tribe wasn’t under federal jurisdiction in 1934, the year the Indian Reorganization Act became law.

But in a deeply polarized political climate, getting the bill passed would require congressional Republicans to support the wishes of the all-Democrat Massachusetts delegation, and given the potential for an Elizabeth Warren presidential bid in 2020, its chances may be significantly affected. Warren is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the tribal bill.

In addition, the Rhode Island congressional delegation has quietly come out in opposition to the bill to protect its gambling revenues. The tribe’s proposed casino, which is slated for fertile Region C ground, is not far from Rhode Island’s eastern border.

Lobbyists and their causes

Genting Malaysia, which is financially backing the tribe’s legal fight to secure its reservation and the casino project, has spent more than $1 million on various lobbying firms in 2018, three times more than it did in 2017, according to federal lobbying disclosures. The overseas developer was the third biggest spender on tourism/lodging lobbying in the U.S. this past year, according to the website Open Secrets.

The tribe’s overall debt to Genting, which also finances parts of tribal government operations, is roughly $426.3 million, according to a recent filing by the Malaysian casino developer. Genting said it is deliberating with the tribe to “review all options” concerning the recoverability of its investment, according to the filing.

Genting paid the law firm Dentons US more than $1 million to lobby on “casino development and land related issues” this year, according to filings. Dentons is the world’s largest firm by number of lawyers, according to its website.

Dentons, on behalf of Genting, in turn has spent between $130,000 and $150,000 on “Interior Department land decisions” through Gavel Resources LLC, according to filings.

Gavel’s lobbyists include, among others, Richard Pombo, a former member of the House of Representatives from California who was among the highest-paid beneficiaries of tribal lobbying and illegal campaign contributions when the tribe was seeking federal recognition in the 2000s.

That period of the tribe’s history was tainted by the legacy of its former chairman Glenn Marshall, who in 2009 was sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison for embezzling nearly $400,000 from the tribe to pay his own bills, making illegal campaign contributions, filing false tax returns and fraudulently receiving Social Security benefits while holding a full-time job. Pombo was unseated in November 2006 amid questions about his ties to Jack Abramoff, a notorious lobbyist who spent several years behind bars in connection with a wide-reaching federal corruption probe.

Pombo did not return a message requesting comment for this story.

‘Trump’s Washington’

In addition to the tribe’s more long-term lobbyists, including Delahunt Group LLC —which helps to, among other things, secure grants — and Akerman LLP, Genting recently contracted with Ballard Partners, touted as one of Washington’s most influential lobbying firms.

The firm is run by Brian Ballard, who was President Donald Trump’s Florida finance chairman for his 2016 campaign. Ballard, dubbed “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington” by Politico, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican causes over the past two years, according to data from the Federal Election Commission’s website. Genting spent $90,000 on Ballard’s firm so far this year.

Given a perceived hostility on the part of the Trump administration toward prevailing Indian land policies — which many scholars and observers outside and within Indian Country have noted — Ballard may seem like an odd pick to represent the tribe’s interests, if Ballard’s work is, in fact, tied to the legislation.

“In some way Ballard Partners would be working at cross-purposes here,” said Ronald Shaiko, senior fellow and associate director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth College. “At base, lobbyists should be pretty pragmatic (in) how they do business. Firms are getting bigger, buying other firms, so they can lobby both sides.”

Competing gambling interests arrayed against the tribe appear to stem from one commanding source, according to filings: Chicago-based casino magnate and billionaire Neil Bluhm, who is backing a proposed casino in Brockton through Mass Gaming & Entertainment, whose casino proposal was denied by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in 2016.

But Mass Gaming is asking for reconsideration of its proposal, and its principal owner, Rush Street Gaming, has thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars behind an effort to influence lawmakers and regulators at the state and federal levels, according to filings — a large portion of which appears to be directed at thwarting the tribe’s casino effort, the pending legislation and garnering local support for the revival of Mass Gaming’s proposal.

It’s unclear precisely how much money, based on lobbying disclosures alone, is working against the tribe.

“This is not just about the Keating legislation,” said Joe Baerlein, a spokesman for Mass Gaming. “There are a whole host of other gaming-related issues that we’re dealing with.”

Rush Street also has casinos in New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Baerlein said.

At the state level, Mass Gaming has spent $210,000 on lobbying so far this year with respect to “issues related to expanded gaming,” according to state filings. Baerlein said that is tied to “outreach” across nine different communities, including boards of selectmen and town administrators.

Leadership in Taunton and Brockton have come down on opposite sides of the issue, with Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr. reaffirming support for the tribal proposal over the summer. Around the same, Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter wrote to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, decrying the department’s “prolonged delay” in issuing a decision with respect to the tribal proposal, which has stymied prospects for development on the parcel of land where Mass Gaming wants to build.

Baerlein said the spending by Genting “dwarfs” the spending against the tribe, adding that the Massachusetts congressional delegation ought to “take a hard look” at the role the foreign company has played in influencing land decisions at the federal level.

More than casinos

Tribal representatives see it quite differently. Heather Sibbison, legal counsel for the tribe and a registered lobbyist for Dentons, said a tribe’s right to hold land has “profound historical and cultural meaning.”

“But for almost everyone else on the other side who is working to disestablish the tribe’s reservation, this is just a big, huge fight over casino market share,” she said. “If it loses its reservation, it loses its school, its ability to provide basic social services; it loses its fundamental right to have land on which it can engage in true self government.”

This year, Rush Street Gaming, formerly Rivers Casino, a gambling parlor owned by Bluhm, has spent $160,000 in lobbying fees through American Continental Group, citing “general gaming issues,” according to filings.

Manus Cooney and David Urban are listed as American Continental lobbyists working on behalf of Rush Street Gaming. Cooney is former chief counsel and staff director of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and Urban is cited as a “prominent Republican lobbyist” who joined the Trump campaign in its early days as an adviser in the Pennsylvania and Indiana primaries, according to the firm’s website.

But the firms cited as lobbying directly against the legislation include Locke Lord Public Policy Group LLC and Freemyer & Associates P.C.

Twin River Management Group — which owns casinos in Rhode Island — has spent $60,000 on Locke Lord specifically on the issue of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, according to filings, and Rush Street Gaming paid Freemyer & Associates P.C. $40,000 so far this year.

Lobbying the lawmakers

In addition, Locke Lord gave $7,500 to U.S. Rep. Robert Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which is responsible for taking up the legislation, over the past year, according to contribution filings. Bishop was among Locke Lord’s top three highest-paid recipients over the past election cycle.

The firm has also supported Democrats, giving money to U.S. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Keating. Cicilline’s political committee received $1,000 from Locke Lord earlier this year, and Keating’s political committee reported two $1,000 contributions from them — one on March 16 and another on March 19 — just days after he introduced the legislation.

Tribal lobbyists, with Dentons at the helm, have also targeted members of the House committee, most notably U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. Dentons gave LaMalfa’s political committee $9,000 just days before Keating introduced the tribe bill.

Altogether, Dentons’ political action committee has given about $40,000 to lawmakers sponsoring the legislation throughout the 2017-2018 campaign cycle, filings show.

Incumbents typically receive more than challengers, and “well over half of their money comes from organized interests” instead of individual contributions, Shaiko said.

Shaiko said it’s typically wise for lobbying firms to give money to political candidates on both sides of the aisle; that way, if a congressional chamber flips, they can stay in business.

“It’s less ideological than it used to be,” he said.

http://www.tauntongazette.com/news/20181025/lobbyists-battle-it-out-over-mashpee-tribes-casino-plan