Tribes Request Probe into Off-Reservation Casino Approval

Opponents to an off-reservation casino project in Michigan are making sure they press all the buttons to halt further developments as the date for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to put the issue to rest approaches.

Backroom Political Deal

Tribal leaders of three Indian tribes in Michigan sent a letter to the inspector general for the US Department of the Interior (DOI), Mark Greenblatt, requesting an investigation into the political motives behind the approval for a casino in Muskegon County.

According to the tribes, the leaving Trump administration approved the project to create controversy in the state and in particular to a fierce critic of President Trump, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The $180 million casino project on off-reservation land in Fruitport Township near the interchange of Interstate 96 and US 31 was signed off by Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary of Indian affairs in Trump’s administration, who determined it was in the best interest of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians which purchased the land in 2008, as well as not detrimental to the surrounding community.

Overriding the ban on off-reservation land in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), the approval shifted final decision to Gov. Whitmer, who under federal laws must concur within a year for the project to advance, placing the Governor’s office in the middle of opposing interests from Detroit commercial casinos and other tribes operating land-based facilities and officials in Muskegon County.

Bob Peters, chairman of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, Jamie Stuck, chairman of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, and Tim Davis, chief of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe request the inspector general’s office to investigate whether “proper substantive and procedural processes were followed” and whether “the decision was inappropriately influenced by the politics of the federal elections.”

Beneficial for the Area

The spokesman for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tom Shields labeled the letter “a desperate manoeuver to stop 3,000 jobs and future economic development from coming to Muskegon County”, and outlined the common practice behind outgoing administrations to approve long-standing projects to avoid delays until the next administration steps in.

The project is expected to bring 1,763 direct construction jobs and 1,201 direct operational jobs and spur economic growth by bringing other businesses into the Muskegon area where the unemployment rate is much higher, 7% according to April data, than the 4.9% statewide average.

Detroit officials are opposing the project, worried that it would open the floodgates to other tribes seeking off-reservation casinos, in particular the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians which had already expressed interest to build a casino in Romulus, as such a development would divert at least 30% of the revenues generated by the three commercial casinos in the city.

The letter also pointed to the outgoing administration’s approval of the Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma’s casino project, the tribe of former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs John Tahsuda, who “should have recused himself from any decision affecting his own Tribe”. Tahsuda left the office 12 days before the December 16 decision.

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