Minnesota Tribe Sues Federal Government Over Proposed Wisconsin Casino; Prairie Island Tribe Says Interior Secretary Babbitt is Ignoring the Law

Jul 17, 2000, 01:00 ET from Prairie Island Indian Community

    PRAIRIE ISLAND, Minn., July 17 /PRNewswire/ -- The Prairie Island Indian
 Community on Friday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis to
 stop the United States Department of Interior (DOI) and Secretary Bruce
 Babbitt from acting on a proposal to build an off-reservation Indian casino in
 nearby Hudson, Wis., until DOI consults with affected tribes.
     The Hudson casino proposal was rejected in 1995 by DOI, but Babbitt
 recently agreed in the settlement of a lawsuit brought by three Wisconsin
 tribes to reconsider their application and his earlier decision. Prairie
 Island says Secretary Babbitt is ignoring federal law by not first consulting
 with nearby tribes and local communities, including Prairie Island, about the
 impact that the new casino would have on them.
     "The process established under DOI's settlement agreement violates the
 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and should be stopped until it is in compliance
 with federal law," said Julie Fishel, an attorney representing the tribe. "The
 Department of the Interior previously denied this application. It has now
 decided to reconsider that earlier decision in response to a lawsuit brought
 by Wisconsin casino interests, but this time it wants to avoid its legal
 obligations and deny local tribes and communities their right to be consulted
 as guaranteed by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."
     The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) prohibits tribes from
 operating gambling on newly acquired off-reservation lands unless the
 Secretary of Interior first consults with other nearby communities and tribes
 and determines that a gaming establishment would not be detrimental to those
 communities or tribes.
     Three Wisconsin tribes and a limited partnership run by a Florida
 businessman have petitioned DOI to take 55 acres in Hudson into trust so that
 the tribes can build a casino on a failing dog track, currently owned by a
 separate limited partnership also run by the same Florida businessman.
     In 1993, Fred Havenick, the Florida businessman, formed a partnership with
 two Wisconsin tribes, the Lac Court Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
 Indians and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, to purchase
 the dog-racing track and jointly manage a casino on the property.  In 1994,
 the Sokaogon Chippewa Community joined the partnership.
     In July 1995, Secretary Babbitt denied the partnership's application to
 take the land into trust for the purposes of gaming.  In that denial,
 Secretary Babbitt cited environmental, economic and competitive concerns under
 the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), the National Environmental Policy Act
 (NEPA) and IGRA.
     The partnership sued DOI over the decision and claimed that Babbitt's
 actions were influenced by campaign donations made by tribes opposed to the
 casino.  Babbitt was cleared of any wrongdoing and his department spent four
 years defending the decision until December 1999 when Babbitt unexpectedly
 announced a settlement agreement with the partnership.  Babbitt agreed to
 throw out his previous decision and reconsider the application to take the
 land into trust.
     According to the settlement agreement, the DOI will only consult with and
 accept additional materials and evidence related to IRA and IGRA from the
 three Wisconsin tribes involved in the proposed Hudson casino.  New comments
 by any other interested parties are limited to written comments addressing
 environmental impacts and concerns governed by NEPA.  As for any other
 comments or consultations, DOI says it will consider only those materials
 submitted more than five years ago by Prairie Island, other tribes and the
 surrounding communities relating to competition and economic impacts.
     "Secretary Babbitt is not living up to the spirit or the letter of the
 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act," said Fishel.  "When Congress passed IGRA it
 included specific off-reservation gambling restrictions to attempt to balance
 the interests of local communities and neighboring tribes from situations like
 this one.  It certainly did not intend for any tribe or community to have its
 voice silenced in the process."
     Prairie Island Tribal Council President Audrey Kohnen said, "This
 Settlement Agreement and Secretary Babbitt's actions are a slap in our face.
 Once again the government is saying it's okay to ignore the law if Indian
 tribes are involved. How many times will we have to live with the federal
 government's broken promises to Indian Country?"
     The Prairie Island Indian Community is a federally recognized Indian
 Nation.  The reservation for the 550-member band is located in southeastern
 Minnesota, along the banks of the Mississippi River about 50 minutes south of
 the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

SOURCE Prairie Island Indian Community