Sen. McLachlan: “Western CT property owners can breathe a sigh of relief” thanks to new tribal rules (Hartford Courant)

June 29, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — New federal rules issued Monday amount to a “big victory” for Connecticut in its battle to prevent three state tribes from gaining federal recognition and the right to open casinos, according to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Malloy and Connecticut’s U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, said the revisions in federal regulations governing tribal recognition will spare this state and thousands of residents years of potential legal entanglements.

But a consultant for one of the Connecticut tribal groups, the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe, said the tribe has not given up on its quest for federal recognition.

State officials were fearful that the federal rules as originally proposed would mean that any tribe that had received state recognition would automatically get federal recognition, a status that would effectively allow them to open casinos. That provision was removed from the final rules issued Monday.

The new rules issued by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs will also apparently prevent tribes that have been rejected in the past from reapplying for federal recognition.

The Eastern Pequots were granted federal recognition in 2002, and one faction of the Schaghticokes received federal recognition in 2004, but both had those decisions revoked by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2005.

Blumenthal warned that the battle to prevent federal recognition isn’t over. “We’re not here to do a victory dance,” Blumenthal said, explaining that it appears likely there will be tribal legal challenges against the federal ruling and new applications for federal recognition.

Any legal challenges of the new federal rules will be fought out between the tribes and the federal government, which means Connecticut taxpayers won’t have to pay those legal costs, Blumenthal said.

“We’re going to have to wait and watch,” Malloy said of the possibility of ongoing legal challenges from the tribes. Murphy said that, “The battle lines have been drawn and aren’t going away.”

BIA Takes Heat From Connecticut Lawmakers, Others On Indian Recognition
The Eastern Pequots in Stonington, the Golden Hill Paugussetts in Trumbull and Colchester, and the Schaghticoke tribe in Kent have all received state recognition, and the tribes have been battling for years to gain federal recognition. All three tribes have expressed interest in building casinos if they win recognition.

The situation has been complicated by splits within tribal groups, one of which pitted the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation faction against the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe.

Despite the likelihood of more legal fights ahead, Connecticut’s governor and the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation were delighted with the federal announcement Tuesday.

At a news conference conducted in front of the governor’s residence Monday, Malloy said the federal decision issued by President Barack Obama’s administration Monday “represents a big victory for the state of Connecticut.” He said the revised rules mean that the three Connecticut tribes, which were previously denied federal recognition, “will not get another bite at the apple.”

Blumenthal said years of intense lobbying by Connecticut officials “defeated efforts to rig the process” by casino interests that are backing the claims of the three tribes.

The federal rules that were originally proposed would have been “an unmitigated disaster” for the state because they would have effectively meant the certain federal recognition of all three tribes, said Murphy. Tribal recognition would have led to three new casinos, thousands of land claims and years of litigation, Murphy said.

State officials also worried that, if the three tribes did win recognition and opened casinos, it would force renegotiation of existing casino agreements with the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans.

Instead, according to Murphy, the rules adopted by the federal government are now “largely benign and harmless” as far as Connecticut is concerned.

Michael McLachlan, a Republican state senator from Danbury, was also praising the final federal ruling. “Western Connecticut property owners can breathe a sigh of relief today,” McLachlan said. “Imagine a casino in Danbury or Kent. That would have been our reality. … A disaster has been averted.”

Officials of the Golden Hill Paugussetts and the Eastern Pequots didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday.

The original proposal to reform the BIA’s recognition rules would have made it far easier for Native American tribes to gain federal approval.

The old federal rules required proof that a tribe had a reservation and was a cohesive political and social group since 1789. The early revision plan published by federal officials last year would have granted fast track recognition to tribes that had a state reservation since 1934 — a requirement that all three Connecticut tribes met. Malloy said that provision, which was ultimately rejected by federal officials, would have granted the three tribes “a free pass to federal recognition.”

William Buchanan said officials of the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe weren’t happy with the 1934 reservation provision anyway.

“We’re pleased,” said Buchanan, who has been working on the tribe’s recognition efforts for years. “I think the BIA did a good job. … It was not only fair but explained in a way that I could accept as the reason for their mind-set,” he said.